Administration's next big Afghan battle: How many troops to withdraw

The military calls the area a model of counterinsurgency strategy. But many civilian U.S. officials who track the war remain unconvinced about Nawa as a template for other frontiers.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 12:06 AM

President Obama's national security team this week revisited the same vexing issues it worked through a year ago in devising the administration's troop escalation in Afghanistan. This time, one key element was missing: impassioned dissent.

While the group concluded that Obama's counterinsurgency strategy is showing signs of progress, divisions persist beneath the appearance of harmony. But skeptics in the administration have decided to hold their fire until late next spring, when Obama must decide how many troops he intends to withdraw starting in July to fulfill a pledge he made when he announced a troop increase last December.

The postponement means that the administration's internal divisions over the war's long-term strategy and cost will play out publicly again just 18 months before Americans go to the polls to decide whether to give Obama a second term.

"The real debate will occur when we have to determine how big the July '11 drawdown will be," said a senior administration official, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

One military officer said, "There still are some very significant differences of opinion."

Vice President Biden and others argued forcefully last year against the military's request for more forces to mount a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Voicing concern about incompetent government in Afghanistan, insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan and plummeting public support in the United States, they sought to focus U.S. combat power on a narrower mission of targeting al-Qaeda members and their Taliban allies.

The skeptics chose not to revive the debate, the officials said, because this fall did not seem like the right time to argue for troop reductions.

This review, which began in October and was led by the National Security Council, was intended to be more diagnostic than prescriptive. An even more significant reason was that recent military operations around the city of Kandahar have progressed more quickly and successfully than expected. Efforts to train the Afghan army and police also are ahead of schedule.

Complicating matters for those who argued against a troop escalation last year is the seasonal ebb and flow of violence in Afghanistan. Insurgent attacks and U.S. casualties always drop in the fall and winter as many Taliban fighters go to sanctuaries in Pakistan, producing hopeful trends on the military's PowerPoint slides. "Winter is the season of eternal optimism in Afghanistan," said a civilian adviser to the NATO command in Kabul.

Measured progress

Although the skeptics question how much progress has been achieved and how sustainable it is, some of them now see an opportunity in the military's claims of success.

One tack they may take, some officials said, is to argue that those claims justify a significant reduction of U.S. forces starting in the summer and a greater reliance on counterterrorism elements of the strategy, including Special Forces operations, drone strikes and enhanced intelligence capabilities to keep al-Qaeda under pressure.

"We want to move, over time, to a more targeted approach and [to] counterterrorism more broadly," said another senior administration official involved in the Afghanistan policy debate. "There's no question that that's the direction we're moving."

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