A closer look at claims in Obama's Afghanistan strategy review

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 16, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The Afghanistan strategic review that President Barack Obama unveiled Thursday focuses on what progress the United States has made in three distinct areas: defeating al Qaida, winning the support of Pakistan in its fight against al Qaida and the Taliban, and pushing back against what had been spreading Taliban control in Afghanistan.

The five-page public summary claims fragile progress in each area, but is notably lacking in details to back up the assertions.

Here's an examination of some of the review's key claims:

AL QAIDA

_ "There has been significant progress in disrupting and dismantling the Pakistan-based leadership and cadre of al Qaida over the past year. Al Qaida's senior leadership has been depleted, the group's safe haven is smaller and less secure, and its ability to prepare and conduct terrorist operations has been degraded in important ways."

The report provides no specifics on how many al Qaida leaders have been killed or captured or at what levels, and makes no mention of the refuge that al Qaida leaders now reportedly have in Karachi, Pakistan's teeming main port and financial capital. Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al Zawahri, remain alive and are able to issue taped pronouncements. More importantly, al Qaida affiliates and allies in other parts of the world remain serious threats and are becoming more sophisticated, something the report acknowledges. These include the Yemen-based al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and al Shabab, the hard-line Islamic militia in Somalia.

_ "Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to be the operational base for the group that attacked us on 9/11. 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."

Contrary to its public statements of confidence in the security of Pakistan's nuclear facilities and warheads, this passage shows that the United States remains concerned that Islamic extremists or their sympathizers within the Pakistani security forces could gain access to a weapon or materials with which to make a dirty bomb.

_ "Al Qaida's eventual strategic defeat will be most effectively achieved through the denial of sanctuaries in the region and the elimination of the group's remaining leadership cadre. Even achieving these goals, however, will not completely eliminate the terrorist threat to U.S. interests. . . . Our posture and efforts to counter these threats will continue unabated."

This passage underscores how the Islamic extremist movement promoted by al Qaida has metastasized and expanded and that the fight will go on for years, even after bin Laden is killed or captured.

AFGHANISTAN

_ "The momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, although these gains remain fragile and reversible."

The report makes no reference to the expansion of the Taliban-led insurgency into areas of northern, western and central Afghanistan as U.S.-led offensives have intensified against the militant Islamist group's strongholds in southern Afghanistan and the Taliban-allied Haqqani network's stronghold in eastern Afghanistan.

Moreover, there's no mention of the intensified Taliban campaign of assassinations, bombings and other attacks on local officials, international and Afghan aid organizations, and government sympathizers.

_ "We are also supporting Afghanistan's efforts to better improve national and sub-national governance, and to build institutions with increased transparency and accountability to reduce corruption — key steps in sustaining the Afghan government."

This statement minimizes the extent of the rampant corruption infecting the Afghan government, from the presidential palace down to district administrations. There's no mention in the report of the political corruption that's marred elections two years in a row and that experts say is leading ordinary Afghans to lose faith in their nascent democracy.

_ "The Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior, with help from the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, have exceeded ANSF growth targets, implemented an expanded array of programs to improve the quality and institutional capacity of the ANSF, and sharply improved their training effectiveness."

This statement about the Afghan National Security Forces overlooks huge problems that go unmentioned in the report. Units are afflicted by high desertion rates and drug abuse, and a majority of ordinary soldiers and police officers are illiterate. The local police remain especially problematic, riddled with corruption and widely hated by ordinary Afghans.

_ "In 2011, we will intensify our regional diplomacy to enable a political process to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan, to include Afghan-led reconciliation, taking advantage of the momentum created by the recent security gains and the international consensus gained in Lisbon."

A key goal of the Obama administration is to persuade Taliban fighters to abandon the insurgency or switch sides and to convince top Taliban leaders to open negotiations with the Afghan government on a political settlement, a process known as reconciliation. To date, however, there's been no progress made on a political solution. A man who U.S. and allied officials thought was a top Taliban interlocutor turned out to be an imposter.

PAKISTAN

_ "In Pakistan, we are laying the foundation for a strategic partnership based on mutual respect and trust, through increased dialogue, improved cooperation and enhanced exchange and assistance programs."

The review glosses over or omits any recitation of the serious problems that continue to bedevil the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, and undermine U.S.-led efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

These include the Pakistani military's refusal to pursue top leaders of the Taliban, who are based in the western Pakistani city of Quetta, and the Haqqani network, an al Qaida-allied extremist network based in the tribal area that's committed some of the worst attacks in Kabul and operates in eastern Afghanistan.

Moreover, there's no reference to what U.S. officials and military commanders think is ongoing covert support for the Afghan insurgents and anti-Indian terrorist groups by elements of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the country's premier spy agency and a close partner of the CIA.

_ "Progress in our relationship with Pakistan over the last year has been substantial, but also uneven. We worked jointly in the last year to disrupt the threat posed by al Qaida, and Pakistan has made progress against extremist safe havens, taking action in six of seven agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas."

This passage hints at the refusal of Pakistan's security services to go after the Haqqani network and other Afghan extremist groups based in the seventh tribal agency, North Waziristan. And it omits any mention of the fact that the Afghan Taliban leadership continues to find sanctuary in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, including its capital, Quetta, as well as in cities such as Karachi.

(Landay is McClatchy's Washington-based national security correspondent. He's reported frequently from Afghanistan and Pakistan.)

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