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Obama Seeks Narrower Focus in Afghan War

Situation Is Much Worse Than New Administration Realized and Will Take Time to Address

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009; Page A12

As President Obama prepares to formally authorize the April deployment of two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, perhaps as early as this week, no issue other than the U.S. economy appears as bleak to his administration as the seven-year Afghan war and the regional challenges that surround it.

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A flurry of post-inauguration activity -- presidential meetings with top diplomatic and military officials, the appointment of a high-level Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy and the start of a White House-led strategic review -- was designed to show forward motion and resolve, senior administration officials said.

But newly installed officials describe a situation on the ground that is far more precarious than they had anticipated, along with U.S. government departments that are poorly organized to implement the strategic outline that Obama presented last week to his National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

With a 60-day deadline, tied to an April 3 NATO summit, Obama has called for a more regional outlook and a more narrowly focused Afghanistan policy that sets priorities among counterinsurgency and development goals. "The president . . . wants to hear from the uniformed leadership and civilian advisers as to what the situation is and their thoughts as to the way forward," a senior administration official said. "But he has also given pretty direct guidance."

The problem confronting the administration is how to fill in Obama's broad strokes while fighting a war that, by all accounts, is going badly. "It could take quite a long time to look at all the various aspects of this," the senior official said. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates predicted last week that the war will be "a long slog" with an uncertain outcome. Richard C. Holbrooke, the new Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy, who left yesterday for his first visit to the region, expects to spend weeks gathering information before he has much advice to give.

Meanwhile, the senior official acknowledged, "the world moves, obviously."

The two new U.S. brigades are set to arrive in Afghanistan in late April, with another planned to depart in August. But even with what is expected to be more than 30,000 additional U.S. troops this year -- bringing the U.S.-NATO total in Afghanistan to nearly 90,000 -- the international force will be insufficient to secure much of the country.

With the spring combat season near, the Taliban has rapidly increased its sophistication and reach. Neither the money nor the manpower is currently available to train and maintain an Afghan National Army that is expected to begin taking over security missions. Afghan elections are scheduled for summer, but U.S. officials see few viable alternatives to the ineffectual president, Hamid Karzai. Efforts to stem cultivation of opium poppies and the narcotics trade that lines Taliban and government pockets have made little discernible progress.

Nearly $60 billion ($32 billion of it from the United States) has already been spent on reconstruction programs in Afghanistan -- more than during five years of failed reconstruction in Iraq -- but such efforts remain "fragmented" and "lack coherence," according to U.S. government auditors. "I fear there are major weaknesses in strategy," retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Fields, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said in a report released Friday.

Across the border in Pakistan, meanwhile, U.S. military officials are anxiously eyeing a map on which extremist gains are rapidly spreading eastward, toward major population centers, as the Taliban and al-Qaeda solidify their hold on the western frontier and form alliances with domestic terrorists. Islamabad's relations with neighboring India, a fellow nuclear power, remain tense after November's terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

Officials described Obama's overall approach to what the administration calls "Af-Pak" as a refusal to be rushed, using words such as "rigor" and "restraint." "We know we're going to get [criticism] for taking our time," said a senior official, one of several in the administration and the military who would discuss the issue only on the condition of anonymity.

While acknowledging the difficulties that the Bush administration faced, Obama officials dismiss the first seven years of Afghanistan war policy, when that conflict took a back seat to the war in Iraq, as reactive, ad hoc and without what one called "a very keen sense of what the goal was."


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