One-year review is mixed on Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy

HOME FROM WAR: 1st Lt. Chris Stafford of Fairfax, Vt., is greeted by his wife, Jennifer, and daughter Ella in South Burlington, Vt., where about 300 Vermont National Guard soldiers returned after a year-long mission in Afghanistan.
HOME FROM WAR: 1st Lt. Chris Stafford of Fairfax, Vt., is greeted by his wife, Jennifer, and daughter Ella in South Burlington, Vt., where about 300 Vermont National Guard soldiers returned after a year-long mission in Afghanistan. (Toby Talbot)
By Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 17, 2010

The one-year review of the administration's Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy released Thursday offered a strikingly mixed assessment of the two-pronged war effort: significant military progress against the Taliban but lagging Afghan government capacity to capitalize on those gains.

President Obama said Thursday that the war effort was "on track" to meet the goals he set a year ago - disrupting and ultimately defeating al-Qaeda, halting Taliban momentum and strengthening Afghanistan's ability to fight the insurgents - and to "start reducing our forces next July." The United States and its allies have said they would complete the combat withdrawal by 2014.

"This continues to be a difficult endeavor," Obama said. In many places, "the gains we've made are fragile and reversible," he said, making particular reference to an "urgent need for political and economic progress in Afghanistan" to match security successes.

As he determines the pace and size of initial troop withdrawals this summer, Obama will have to decide how good Afghan governance needs to be to allow for a U.S. pullout - an acceptable end state that some administration officials refer to as "Afghan good enough."

"I think the questions about sustainability point to the next phase of the war - that is, how do you consolidate the gains you've made," said a senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House thinking.

In adopting a strategy late last year that sent 30,000 additional U.S. troops and more than a thousand diplomats and aid experts to an unpopular war, Obama largely rejected a more focused counterterrorism option, centered on Special Operations Forces missions and drone attacks against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, put forward by Vice President Biden and others. Some of those officials continue to question whether the far broader counterinsurgency strategy that was adopted is necessary or even viable.

Obama appeared Thursday to sanction the ongoing governance and economic efforts within unspecified limits. "Going forward," he said, "there must be a continued focus on the delivery of basic services, as well as transparency and accountability," he said.

"I think the key here is identifying our objectives carefully," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters in response to questions about the scope of the effort. "What do we need to accomplish?" Gates said his view was that the objective was "to provide some minimal capability at the local, district and provincial level for security, for dispute resolution, for perhaps a clinic within an hour's walk."

Although public opinion against the war has focused largely on the expanded combat operations, which account for the bulk of the $100 billion in annual U.S. costs, many of the war's most ardent supporters say they think that the full counterinsurgency strategy is the best way to win.

Recalling a similar debate over U.S. operations in Iraq, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that those arguing for limits "were wrong in Iraq and they are wrong here. . . . I've seen this movie before - an argument that you should just try to kill bad guys and use drones, then we can succeed. We can't succeed that way."

Obama, McCain said, "is very honest and forthright in the assessments he provides Congress and the American people. He has never said this is going to be easy."

In a statement, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) described the review as "welcome evidence of progress in key parts of Afghanistan." But he added that "our strategy and resources must match our objectives and our core mission, which is not building a perfect state, but defeating al-Qaeda and denying it and its partners a secure base from which to launch attacks on the United States and its allies."

Kerry said the Foreign Relations Committee he chairs would hold a "major series of oversight hearings" on progress in war effort when the new Congress convenes next year.

The review concluded that significant gains have been made against al-Qaeda, where missile attacks by U.S. drones on their sanctuaries in Pakistan have eliminated a number of insurgent leaders. But the Pakistani military, despite stepped up efforts in tribal regions near its border with Afghanistan, has continued to resist U.S. entreaties to take more aggressive action.

"Progress has not come fast enough," Obama said, "so we will continue to insist to Pakistani leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders must be dealt with."

Overall, Obama said, "none of these challenges I've outlined will be easy. There are more difficult days ahead. . . . We are going to have to continue to stand up," he said. "We will never waver from our goal of ultimately disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda."

Obama said he had spoken to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in advance of the report's release. He noted that he will visit Pakistan next year and that Zardari will visit Washington. The United States, Obama said, "is committed to an enduring partnership" with Pakistan.

Neither Obama nor a five-page written summary of the review distributed by the White House presented specifics or data to back up its conclusions that al-Qaeda has been significantly damaged and Taliban momentum had been "arrested" in much of Afghanistan "and reversed in some key areas." Nor did they indicate any specific policy changes to increase pressure on either the Afghan or Pakistani governments.

The challenge, the summary said, "remains to make our gains durable and sustainable." The assessment document is classified and will not be made public, according to an administration official who said that interested members of Congress would be briefed on it in January.

The review was compiled from reports submitted by military, diplomatic and intelligence officials since mid-October. Flanking Obama at his appearance in the White House briefing room were Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gates and Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Even as the assessment was being compiled in recent weeks, Obama and his top national security advisers began telegraphing its positive conclusions. Asked Thursday whether the administration was "sugarcoating" the difficulties in Afghanistan and Pakistan in response to public unhappiness, Clinton said she was "well aware of the popular concern and I understand it."

"But I don't think that leaders, and certainly this president, will make decisions that are matters of life and death and the future security of our nation based on polling," Clinton said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company