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

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."

For those who want to see a significant drawdown occur next year, pressing for that outcome on claims of success could be less politically dangerous for Obama than arguing that counterinsurgency backed by extra troops has not worked as promised. "It's always better to call it success as opposed to failure," the first official said.

The possibility that the skeptics may use the military's upbeat reports to push for an accelerated reduction has alarmed some in the Pentagon, who question whether Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, has been too vocal in his claims of progress this fall. "Kabul has been focused on December when the real battle in Washington will be later on," a senior military official said.

The assertions of success are tempered by two National Intelligence Estimates - one on Afghanistan and one on Pakistan - that were delivered to the White House and Congress shortly before Thanksgiving.

One U.S. official who has read the documents said the Afghanistan estimate warns that it will be difficult for the United States and its allies to prevail unless Pakistan roots out militant groups that take sanctuary within its borders. The Pakistan estimate concludes that it is unlikely the government in Islamabad will do so. "So you're left with the question: Is the conclusion that we're going to lose?" the official said.

Senior U.S. military officials have played down the estimates, whose existence was reported Friday by the Associated Press, saying that they were based on intelligence gathered months ago.

U.S. intelligence officials rejected the criticism, saying that the CIA and other agencies have delivered a stream of reports in recent weeks to senior policymakers, including the president, that reflect more recent developments but have generally reinforced the conclusions of the two national estimates.

Changed atmosphere

In deciding last year to escalate the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Obama went against many Democrats, primarily those who make up the liberal core of his constituency. Still relatively new to the job of commander in chief then, Obama was working out his relationship with the uniformed military, and after running a campaign in 2008 based on a promise of postpartisan compromise, he relied largely on support from Republicans on Capitol Hill for the troop surge.

But the political dynamics, as well as those of the war, are different today as he heads into the second half of his term. Sixty percent of Americans now say the war is not worth fighting, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, a more than 20-point rise since Obama's election.

The shift in public opinion represents additional pressure, as well as political motivation, for Obama to accelerate the American withdrawal from Afghanistan as he heads into a difficult reelection season. For the first time, the poll found that more than half of Americans say the summer 2011 date is the "about right" time to begin pulling out U.S. forces, but about three in 10 want the withdrawal to start sooner.

For Obama, bipartisanship has proved elusive, including on some of his foreign-policy priorities, and he faces a restive Democratic base after the party's historic midterm losses and his recent decision to compromise on a tax package that goes against his campaign pledge to end George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

Polls show that ending the war in Afghanistan is an issue that unites independents and core Democrats, offering Obama a political opportunity as he begins considering how quickly to draw down American forces there beginning next year. In the new Post-ABC News poll, 72 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of independents said the war is no longer worth fighting.

Senior administration officials insist that political considerations will not play a decisive role in determining the pace of ending combat operations in Afghanistan, which is scheduled to be complete at the end of 2014. But one senior adviser said Obama and his party's base agree "to the extent that Afghanistan is not a place the president wants to stay one day longer than he has to."

"The president is impatient about our progress there," the official said.

Public concern about the federal deficit, to which the Afghanistan war adds more than $100 billion every year, is growing. The strained budget means less money for projects that Obama views as essential to ensuring the country's long-term competitiveness in an increasingly global economy.

"There's no question we're going to begin removing troops beginning July 2011," said a third senior administration official involved in the Afghanistan policy debate. "When we start to go over the hump in July, it will be part of a broader discussion about our partners bearing a larger share of the burden, including the Afghans."

Staff writer Greg Miller and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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