Afghanistan report finds progress 'fragile,' offers few details

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 16, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The long anticipated Obama administration assessment of its strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan found that progress in the region so far is fragile and could easily unravel even though the U.S. has weakened al Qaida's leadership and put the Taliban on the run.

A five-page unclassified summary the administration released late Wednesday of the classified National Security Council-led assessment was noticeably lacking in detail, with no hard facts and no specifics on withdrawal.

The full 40-page-plus report took 11 days to write, the summary said. It assessed al Qaida’s current strength, U.S. relations with Pakistan and U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and is based on information collected between Oct. 12 and Nov. 10.

However, the public report offers only generalities about the U.S. effort in the region, three months after the U.S. military finished surging an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. There are nearly 100,000 U.S. troops there now.

A year ago, the White House set a July 2011 date when the U.S. would begin withdrawing troops, but last month McClatchy reported a plan that foresees American troops remaining in Afghanistan until at least the end of 2014.

In a Dec. 1, 2009, speech at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., President Barack Obama announced the strategy in Afghanistan and promised an extensive review of that effort a year later. That review was supposed to be a detailed assessment that could have led to a change in course if necessary. What it became, administration and defense officials said, is an affirmation of the current strategy.

"While the strategy is showing progress across all three assessed areas of al-Qaida, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the challenge remains to make our gains durable and sustainable," the report said.

The unclassified portion of the report doesn't spell out U.S. metrics for success.

A senior defense official who wasn't authorized to speak publicly told McClatchy that while there are metrics in the classified version, they're not publicly spelled out because that would "be akin to telling our adversaries the precise areas we are focused on improving."

The assessment's lack of specifics could fuel skepticism about the policy.

Nearly 500 U.S. troops have been killed this year, making it the deadliest period of the nine-year war. In addition, civilian casualties are at their highest levels, the U.S.-backed Afghan government is riddled with corruption, and the Taliban reach has expanded in parts of the country.

While the surge of troops improved security in parts of Afghanistan and weakened the Taliban, the report says that security is tenuous and the Afghan government and security forces aren't strong enough to defeat the Taliban. In Pakistan, U.S. officials are improving relations, the report said, but "better balance and integration of the various components of our strategy will be required to reach our objectives."

And al Qaida is still committed to attacking the U.S. homeland.

The report also address concerns about Afghanistan's faltering government, saying that without a strong ally, any U.S. gains in training the Afghan security forces or improving security could disappear quickly.

"As we shift to transition, a major challenge will be demonstrating that the Afghan government has the capacity to consolidate gains in geographic areas that have been cleared by (coalition) and Afghan Security Forces," the report says.

But it offers no assessment of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government or the capability of Afghan forces. It gives no figures for the strength or numbers of al Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And it doesn't spell out how U.S. efforts to strengthen Pakistan's civilian governance, including with a $1.5 billion annual aid package, is working.

Despite the concerns raised in the report, President Barack Obama, in his statement later Thursday, will stress U.S. efforts to transition security to a more capable Afghanistan security force over the next year, an administration official told McClatchy. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also will speak about the report.

The report suggests that U.S. officials are concerned about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and the possibility that Islamic militants or their supporters within the Pakistani security forces could obtain a warhead or nuclear materials. Pakistan 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.

"The presence of nuclear weapons in the region also lends to its distinct status, highlighting the importance of working with regional partners to prevent extremists, including core al Qaida, from acquiring such weapons or materials."

And it suggests that even if the U.S. successfully kills Osama bin Laden, the U.S. will still face threats from al Qaida because it has metastasized outside the region and indeed there are new extremist groups, inspired by al Qaida's success.

"Even achieving these goals, however, will not completely eliminate the terrorist threat to U.S. interests. There are a range of other groups, including some affiliated with al Qaida, as well as individuals inspired by al Qaida, who aim to do harm to our nation and our allies. Our posture and efforts to counter these threats will continue unabated."

(Jonthan S. Landay contributed to this article.)

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