By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010; A19
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.
U.S. military and civilian leaders have claimed major successes in clearing operations around Kandahar, but fear those gains are being jeopardized by the failure of the Karzai government to provide competent civilian officials and services. If the local population is not satisfied, U.S. officials have said, it will show little resistance to Taliban fighters expected to return with warm weather in the spring.
The military, citing intelligence indicating that many Taliban fighters are unhappy with their own leadership and growing weary of the fight, has warned that time is short to consolidate the progress they have made.
But U.S. intelligence agencies have compiled a divergent narrative of some of the facts on the ground. While agreeing that U.S. forces have killed large numbers of mid-level Taliban, they see no real change in insurgent capabilities, with commanders and fighters being quickly replaced.
To some extent, one official said, different parts of the government "come to different conclusions because we want to." Petraeus has said that intelligence analysis is retrospective and too slow to reflect the fast-moving situation, the official said, while the intelligence agencies have said the military is trying to justify its ongoing mission and limit the promised withdrawals.
"There is no intention in the White House to either elevate or quash the intelligence analysis," this official said. "But there is a group that would like less emphasis on this."
The intelligence community, said another official, "thinks Petraeus is full of it." But in high-level sessions since September, the general's assessments have remained unchallenged. "No one argues with Petraeus in front of the president," this official said.
"A lot depends on what part of the elephant you're touching," said one member of the White House group meeting almost daily to pore over incoming review reports. "Petraeus can point to some real progress in a number of the purely military areas. Other people will look and see in other areas . . . that things may be more difficult."
The objective, he said, is "trying to resolve conflicts, asking hard questions, trying to clear up discrepancies and present the most comprehensive picture of what we believe is happening."The drawdown pledge
Policy options will not be part of the review, officials said. Rather, the principals will be presented with a list of areas in which decisions will have to be made. One of the questions to be addressed by Obama, Biden and top national security officials in the spring is how many troops to withdraw, and from where.
Obama has made some converts among those who at first opposed a public withdrawal pledge. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who initially believed the July withdrawal pledge "denied us flexibility," said he changed his position and "came to believe this was the right decision" after Obama promised to base any U.S. drawdown on "conditions on the ground."
"If the Taliban are telling their supporters and their soldiers today, the Americans are leaving in July of 2011, they're going to discover very quickly in August and September of 2011 we're still there and we're still out there killing," Gates said in a Tuesday interview with ABC News's "Nightline."
Others remain unconvinced. "It sends the wrong message, and it created a problem," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said of the July deadline at a Wednesday news conference in Afghanistan.
In an interview Thursday at NATO headquarters in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen drew sharp distinctions between an alliance commitment to begin the "transition" to Afghan security control, decisions by Petraeus on where initial transitions should occur and decisions by member nations to withdraw their troops.
NATO country leaders gathered in Lisbon will receive a province-by-province update on the situation in Afghanistan from Petraeus, including the training of Afghan soldiers and police that will underpin assessments of whether they are able to confront the Taliban in some provinces.
"The summit will take the political decision," Rasmussen said, "and then the specific [transition] decisions will come in theater."Initiating process
Under the process about to be set in motion, the first tranche of proposed transition provinces or districts will be approved by the North Atlantic Council, NATO's political-decision-making body, then by the Afghan government. Coalition troops being freed by the handover of responsibilities to Afghan forces will then be redeployed to other areas or tasks where they are still needed.
Several candidates for transition have already been suggested. France, which fields nearly 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, has proposed a transfer of its forces from the Surobi district in Kabul province to nearby Kapisa province.
In a Pentagon briefing Wednesday, Army Col. William Roy, a Vermont National Guard commander in central Afghanistan, said the local security forces he works with in Bamiyan province had already "taken the lead in responsibility for security" and that those in Parwan province would soon be ready to do so.
New NATO member commitments for additional trainers will also be announced at the summit, which Karzai will attend. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday that his country would provide several hundred additional trainers after the scheduled departure of Canada's combat troops next summer. NATO officials are hoping for a similar pledge from the Netherlands, which withdrew its combat troops this year.
Correspondent Edward Cody contributed from Brussels.