Afghanistan progress report warns of continued al Qaida threat

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 16, 2010 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and his aides released a strategy assessment of the war in Afghanistan on Thursday that asserts U.S. troops are making gains but acknowledges serious threats to the effort and lays out a timeline that promises several more years of U.S. involvement.

The terse, five-page unclassified version of the secret review says that U.S. military operations have disrupted the Pakistan-based al Qaida terrorist network over the last year and halted the momentum of the Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan.

But the Afghan government hasn't yet proved that it can take over areas that have been cleared of insurgents, nor has Pakistan done enough to eliminate al Qaida and Taliban havens on its territory, the report says.

Overall, critics said the public assessment appeared to be an attempt by the White House to reaffirm its strategy while postponing tough decisions on the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals until next year. Unlike Obama's previous statements that timelines are needed, the report offers no specifics on how long the U.S. involvement might last.

"A five-page document to deal with one of the most complex wars in history? It's not quite a fortune cookie but it is not a strategic review either," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

With public support for the nine-year-old war at record lows and with many in Obama's own party opposing his policies, the president and his aides were at pains to emphasize their pared-back goals in Afghanistan.

"It's not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan, because, ultimately, it is Afghans who must secure their country. And it's not nation-building, because it is Afghans who must build their nation," Obama said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "Our goal isn't to build a 21st-century Afghanistan. Our goal is not a country that is free of corruption, which would be unique in the entire region." Instead, he said, it's to turn back the Taliban and "provide some minimal capability" to the Afghan government.

Even by those metrics, it's unclear whether Obama's strategy, which included the deployment of 30,000 more U.S. troops, is working.

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

The five-page summary says that al Qaida's leadership has been damaged but that the group remains determined to attack the United States, and it notes that even if the U.S. succeeds in killing Osama bin Laden, it still will face threats from al Qaida because the terrorist group has metastasized outside the region to new extremist groups.

It says the U.S. is working more closely with the Pakistani government and that the recruiting and training of Afghanistan's security forces is ahead of schedule.

But it offers no detailed assessment of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and doesn't even mention the pervasive corruption that most Afghans cite as their primary complaint. It gives no figures for the number of al Qaida and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And it doesn't spell out how U.S. efforts to strengthen Pakistan's civilian governance, which include a $1.5 billion annual aid package, are working.

It hints that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal remains a concern, despite Obama administration assertions that it's unconcerned about the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into al Qaida or Taliban hands.

"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," it says.

Cordesman, who backs the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, said a report so lacking in detail could fuel war skepticism. "There is a risk here that is borne out in public opinion polls. We are not making a case for war," he said. "The message far too often is 'Trust me.' "

Senior U.S. officials disputed that they were putting a rosy gloss on the war effort.

"This has been a very, very hard-nosed review," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

The White House is eager to demonstrate progress in Afghanistan. Obama pledged a year ago to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011, a date that he and his aides appear determined to meet with at least token withdrawals.

But Thursday's assessment sheds no light on the size or pace of troop withdrawals. U.S. military commanders are expected to argue for the maximum number of troops and time to complete the mission when the administration's internal debate is rejoined in the spring.

Gates said the U.S. goal was to have Afghan security forces take control 18 to 24 months after American-led troops arrived. In the Marjah area of Helmand province, where U.S. troops encountered unexpected difficulties after an offensive that began in February, "six months from now, we think we're going to be in a pretty good place," he said.

By that gauge, U.S. troops who just arrived in parts of the district of Kandahar in September and October might not be withdrawn until late 2012.

The assessment, the importance of which the White House has downplayed steadily in recent weeks, was the third Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review of Obama's presidency. The president ordered one shortly after he took office, and another — peppered by fierce policy debates — led to his decision a year ago to "surge" more troops and U.S. civilians to Afghanistan.

Yet another assessment is likely in the weeks before the July 2011 milestone.

One of the report's signal findings is that U.S.-led forces, partnered with Afghan troops, have made gains in pushing the Taliban out of strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. But the insurgents have responded by increasing attacks in other parts of the country, notably in the north and west.

Nongovernmental aid groups report that broad swaths of the Afghan countryside are more insecure than ever.

The International Committee of the Red Cross reported Wednesday that threats to Afghan civilians are growing from a proliferation of armed groups, many of them criminal in nature.

"While the review concluded that progress is being made against al Qaida, security for the vast majority of Afghans is rapidly deteriorating," said Paul O'Brien, the vice president of policy and campaigns for the aid group Oxfam.

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