WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is expected to unveil his U.S. troop reduction plan for Afghanistan next week, buoyed by assessments by senior defense officials that the U.S. war strategy is headed in the right direction and has weakened the Taliban-led insurgency.
But some U.S. officials in Washington and in Afghanistan are concerned that many of the gains aren't sustainable, and conditions are too fragile to allow for the "significant" troop drawdown that Obama is being pressured to begin next month by some top aides and growing numbers of lawmakers of both parties.
Violence is worse, many Taliban appear to have moved elsewhere rather than fight U.S. forces surged into the south, the Afghan government and security forces remain far from capable, and counter-insurgency cooperation with Pakistan is all but frozen, these U.S. officials said.
"The situation is terrible. Has there been a qualitative change that disadvantages the opposition and advantages the (U.S.-led) coalition? I don't buy it," said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly. "The Taliban remains a clever, adaptive enemy."
Moreover, there has been no apparent progress toward convening talks on a political settlement with the Taliban following three secret meetings between a senior U.S. diplomat and a former top aide to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader based in southwestern Pakistan.
While the U.S. surge has dealt the insurgents major setbacks and Osama bin Laden is dead, Omar and other hard-liners have few incentives to negotiate given the growing domestic pressure on Obama to begin withdrawing U.S. troops and meet a 2014 deadline for all combat forces to be out, some experts said.
"We have to display steadfastness, cohesion and purpose, and I think all of those things are in doubt about us," said Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul from 2004 to 2007.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, submitted his drawdown options this week to the White House, where they are so tightly held that administration spokesmen refused to confirm when Obama would announce his final decision.
But a senior U.S. military official, who requested anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding the plan, said Obama is expected to unveil his plan next week.
Petraeus' proposal includes a recommendation to shift U.S. surge troops out of parts of southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces to eastern provinces bordering Pakistan, where the Taliban and allied groups maintain sanctuaries, according to several U.S. officials who requested anonymity.
Afghan army and police units, accompanied by U.S. military mentors, would replace the U.S. forces redeployed from Kandahar's Arghandab Valley and the Helmand River Valley, they said.
Obama pledged to begin withdrawing some of the 100,000 U.S. troops next month in a Dec. 1, 2009, speech in which he laid out his strategy to prevent a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan that would allow al Qaida to re-establish a sanctuary in the war-ravaged country of 36 million.
Obama is under considerable pressure to pull out a significant portion of the 30,000 additional soldiers he ordered there for a surge, mostly in the Taliban's southern strongholds, from members of both parties anxious to reduce federal spending, and from the majority of Americans weary of the nearly decade-old war.
The killing of bin Laden in a May 2 U.S. Navy SEAL raid on his hideout near Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, has added to that pressure.
Some Obama lieutenants, led by Vice President Joe Biden, also are reportedly pushing for a substantial reduction, their eyes on Obama's campaign for re-election next year.
Senior U.S. defense officials insist that the U.S. strategy — coupling military operations with training 305,000 Afghan security forces by October, and intensified efforts to improve governance, build infrastructure and boost government services — is headed in the right direction.
They point to a weakened Taliban presence and revived commerce and development in southern areas that the militants once dominated, the expanding Afghan army and police, and Pakistan's deployment of 140,000 troops on the border to block insurgents from crossing.
"I believe we are being successful in implementing the president's strategy, and I believe that our military operations are being successful in denying the Taliban control of populated areas, degrading their capabilities and improving the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.
Yet Gates, who's retiring this month, also warned on June 10 against a rapid U.S. drawdown that could jeopardize those gains, saying it must be done "in a deliberate, organized and coordinated manner." Petraeus has also called those gains "fragile and reversible."
The Afghan government is due to assume security next month in seven provinces and districts in a process that is due to culminate in its assumption of security nationwide by 2014.
Neumann said that the strategy is about a year behind schedule, delayed by the extensive preparations that were required to launch it, like building bases to house the additional U.S. troops.
"We are roughly a year behind where a lot of people unrealistically hoped we'd be where we are now," he said.
Many Afghans want the Americans to leave, even though they have little faith that their forces can prevail, U.S. commanders say. Indeed, in a briefing on Thursday, hours before Gates offered his upbeat assessment, Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan Jr., said the impact of withdrawing U.S. forces remains to be seen.
"We are trying to work very hard at, to build up, is what we call the Afghan Local Police," said Toolan, the U.S. commander in southwestern Afghanistan. "But if they're not able to stand up, or if they are co-opted by the insurgents, then that fragility sort of occurs. And it becomes a problem then to get back into the villages and try to re-establish a secure environment."
A recent classified U.S. Army study found that Afghan troops are becoming increasingly enraged by civilian casualties and what they consider mistreatment by their U.S. trainers, resulting in the killing of 58 Western personnel by Afghan soldiers in 26 attacks since May 2007.
"Such fratricide-murder incidents are no longer isolated; they reflect a growing systemic threat," that could derail the U.S. strategy, according to a copy of the study obtained by McClatchy. It was first reported on Friday by the Wall Street Journal.
Most importantly, the war has become deadlier for civilians and soldiers alike.
Last week, the United Nations said that May was the deadliest month for civilians since it began tracking such statistics in 2007. According to U.N. data, 368 civilians died, 82 percent of them killed by the Taliban, 12 by coalition forces and 6 percent unknown.
In addition, April and May were the deadliest of the war for coalition forces. Fifty-one coalition troops were killed in April — compared with 34 in 2010 and 14 in 2009, according to icasualties.org, which tracks such statistics. Fifty-six died last month, compared with 51 in 2010 and 27 in 2009.
At least 32 coalition troops have been killed this month. Last June, 103 troops died, the deadliest month of the war as troops were in the midst of major operations in Helmand and Kandahar.
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