U.S., NATO to announce 'transition' strategy in Afghanistan war

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Obama administration and its NATO allies will declare late this week that the war in Afghanistan has made sufficient progress to begin turning security control over to its government by spring, months before the administration's July deadline to start withdrawing U.S. troops, according to U.S. and European officials.

Even as it announces the "transition" process, which will not immediately include troop withdrawals, NATO will also state its intention to keep combat troops in Afghanistan until 2014, a date originally set by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The seemingly contradictory messages, in communiques and agreements to be released at NATO's upcoming summit in Lisbon, are intended to reassure U.S. and European audiences that the process of ending the war has begun.

At the same time, the coalition wants to signal to the Taliban - along with Afghans and regional partners who fear a coalition withdrawal, and Republicans in Congress who oppose it - that they are not leaving anytime soon.

"We have to assemble a coherent narrative . . . that everyone buys into," said a senior administration official, one of several who discussed ongoing alliance negotiations on the condition of anonymity.

An "enduring partnership" agreement being negotiated between NATO and Afghanistan will extend security support indefinitely. A bilateral U.S.-Afghanistan accord, similar to the "strategic framework" signed with Iraq when troop-withdrawal deadlines were set there in 2008, will promise long-term economic, diplomatic and security cooperation and is to be completed by January.

For the administration, the agreements are a way to draw domestic attention away from President Obama's controversial July withdrawal pledge and toward a more "strategic" plan, officials said.

But as they strive for a common strategy, each coalition member - including the United States - is conducting its own internal assessment of the Afghanistan mission amid high domestic disapproval of the war and pressure to justify its continuance. The administration is planning a December review of the increase in U.S. military and civilian forces that Obama announced last year.

The "surge" strategy was chosen after lengthy debates in which some officials, including Vice President Biden, favored narrowing the U.S. mission to attacks against al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Others, including the military, successfully argued for a more expanded counterinsurgency strategy, with major governance and development components, in addition to providing security for Afghan civilians.

"There are the same divisions as last fall," one official said. "Nobody has changed their view."

'Different conclusions'

Data now being collected by the White House on both military and civilian progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan offer support for a range of conflicting opinions.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, told Obama in early September that he expects to report progress in several areas, including large numbers of mid-level Taliban commanders on the ground killed or captured, clearance of Taliban strongholds around Kandahar and the establishment of functioning governance, development of nonmilitary local defense forces, and the reintegration and reconciliation with some Taliban.

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