Success of U.S. Afghan policy won't be clear before July

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 15, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The real test of President Barack Obama's Afghanistan strategy comes not Thursday, when the White House addresses it, but next summer.

The White House will release its one-year assessment of Obama's Afghanistan troop surge on Thursday. It's expected to claim progress in confronting the Taliban-led insurgency, while acknowledging shortfalls in building a stable Afghan government and ending insurgent havens in Pakistan.

The 40-page-plus review isn't expected to yield major policy changes nor shifts in the level of U.S. troops there, who number slightly less than 100,000.

U.S. advisers and analysts who follow Afghanistan closely say the trends are ambiguous and it will be next July before the results of Obama's policy switch, announced last December in an address at West Point, will be clear.

After another spring fighting season, they say, it will be apparent whether aggressive NATO military operations in southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces have dealt the Taliban a serious blow or U.S. combat successes prove ephemeral.

"It's too early to make a definitive judgment on the strategy at this point. We've seen progress. What we haven't seen is whether the progress will lead to the strategic end state we want," said Carl Forsberg, a research analyst at the nonpartisan Institute for the Study of War. "We won't see that until the spring or summer."

A study by Forsberg, released Wednesday,

concludes that the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force has seized momentum from the Taliban in key districts of Kandahar, the fundamentalist Muslim movement's birthplace, particularly in the last two months.

"The Taliban will likely attempt a counteroffensive in the spring of 2011, but will suffer from the destruction of infrastructure, defensive positions and IED (improvised explosive device) factories, and loss of supply stockpiles," says the study, facilitated by the U.S. military command in Afghanistan.

In his West Point speech, Obama pledged "to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011," a pledge the White House is desperate to fulfill, at least in spirit. The target end date for the mission is late 2014, when the Afghan army and police are supposed to assume full security responsibilities.

But if violence — at record highs this year, in part because of stepped-up U.S. military operations — doesn't subside, the president could face pressure for a faster withdrawal, for sending in more troops, or both, from opposing camps.

"There are a lot of indicators that will have to be measured ... but the one that will matter the most will be the degree to which violence begins to come down," said a Pentagon adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. "If it's not coming down by July and we still have these ambiguous indicators, then I think we'll have to have a serious review as to whether the hypothesis we've been testing ... should be reconsidered."

During the run-up to last December's unveiling of Obama's strategy, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the president and Vice President Joe Biden "that we will know by July 2011 if our strategy is working," the adviser said.

Thursday's assessment will cover three topics, White House officials said: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the fight against al Qaida in the region.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that the report would document progress in reversing the Taliban's momentum, eliminating senior al Qaida leaders and enhancing cooperation with Pakistan's government.

It also will document significant shortfalls: little progress in strengthening the Afghan government to take over areas seized from insurgents or in prodding Pakistan to take on the militants who use its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan as a refuge.

"Those are the two big strategic Achilles' heels," said Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who sometimes advises Army Gen. David Petraeus, the Afghanistan military commander.

Afghans of all walks of life express little faith in the government of President Hamid Karzai, which they see as corrupt and controlled by a handful of wealthy powerbrokers, many of them former warlords.

"The U.S. military may be able to control any particular part of Afghanistan, but there is no capacity whatsoever to bring in better government behind it," says a Nov. 28 report by the International Crisis Group, a respected conflict-prevention organization.

A U.S. government official, who wasn't authorized to speak for the record, said the lack of a credible Afghan partner was a fatal flaw in Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy. "Things are not going to get radically better six months from now," he said.

Pakistan, the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. security and development aid, has focused on eradicating its own al Qaida-allied extremist groups based inside its border with Afghanistan. But it's continued to resist U.S. pressure to move vigorously against bases of the Afghan Taliban and allied militants such as the Haqqani network, U.S. officials said.

A semiannual Pentagon report released last month says that larger, more aggressive military operations were putting pressure on insurgents. "However, the insurgents will retain operational momentum in some areas as long as they have access to externally supported safe havens and support networks," it says.

(Dion Nissenbaum in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this article.)

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