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U.S. Notes Limited Progress in Afghan War

Strategic Goals Unmet, White House Concludes

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007; Page A01

A White House assessment of the war in Afghanistan has concluded that wide-ranging strategic goals that the Bush administration set for 2007 have not been met, even as U.S. and NATO forces have scored significant combat successes against resurgent Taliban fighters, according to U.S. officials.

The evaluation this month by the National Security Council followed an in-depth review in late 2006 that laid out a series of projected improvements for this year, including progress in security, governance and the economy. But the latest assessment concluded that only "the kinetic piece" -- individual battles against Taliban fighters -- has shown substantial progress, while improvements in the other areas continue to lag, a senior administration official said.

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This judgment reflects sharp differences between U.S. military and intelligence officials on where the Afghan war is headed. Intelligence analysts acknowledge the battlefield victories, but they highlight the Taliban's unchallenged expansion into new territory, an increase in opium poppy cultivation and the weakness of the government of President Hamid Karzai as signs that the war effort is deteriorating.

The contrasting views echo repeated internal disagreements over the Iraq war: While the military finds success in a virtually unbroken line of tactical achievements, intelligence officials worry about a looming strategic failure.

"There is a key debate going on now between the military -- especially commanders on the ground -- and the intelligence community and some in the State Department about how we are doing," said one Afghanistan expert who has consulted with the National Security Council as it continues to "comb through conflicting reports" about the conflict.

Over the past year, all combat encounters against the Taliban have ended with "a very decisive defeat" for the extremists, Brig. Gen. Robert E. Livingston Jr., commander of the U.S. task force training the Afghan army, told reporters this month. The growing number of suicide bombings against civilians underscores the Taliban's growing desperation, according to Livingston and other U.S. commanders.

But one senior intelligence official, who like others interviewed was not authorized to discuss Afghanistan on the record, said such gains are fleeting. "One can point to a lot of indicators that are positive . . . where we go out there and achieve our objectives and kill bad guys," the official said. But the extremists, he added, seem to have little trouble finding replacements.

Although growing numbers of foreigners -- primarily Pakistanis -- are joining the Taliban ranks, several officials said the primary source of new recruits remains disaffected Afghans fearful of opposing the Taliban and increasingly disillusioned with their own government.

Overall, "there doesn't seem to be a lot of progress being made. . . . I would think that from [the Taliban] standpoint, things are looking decent," the intelligence official said.

Senior White House officials privately express pessimism about Afghanistan. There is anxiety over the current upheaval in neighboring Pakistan, where both the Taliban and al-Qaeda maintain headquarters, logistical support and training camps along the Afghan border. But "in all honesty, I think it is too early to tell right now" whether political turmoil will undermine what U.S. officials already consider lackluster counterinsurgency efforts by Pakistani forces, the senior administration official said.

At the moment, several officials said, their concern is focused far more on the domestic situation in Afghanistan, where increasing numbers are losing faith in Karzai's government in Kabul. According to a survey released last month by the Asia Foundation, 79 percent of Afghans felt that the government does not care what they think, while 69 percent felt that it is not acceptable to publicly criticize the government.

Although 42 percent remained optimistic that things are moving in the right direction -- slightly lower than in a similar survey in 2006 -- most of those who thought otherwise cited insecurity as the biggest problem, followed by poor governance and the economy. Just a year ago, security was cited as the biggest reason for optimism.


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