Chief Military Correspondent
The assessments now pouring into the White House from Afghanistan run the gamut from discouraging to awful, as the Obama administration finishes up its long-awaited December review of the war strategy the president announced a year ago.
In many ways, the cold facts charting the grim course of the war belie the upbeat views that the perpetually confident Gen. David Petraeus, the war's top commander, has expressed in public.
President Obama didn't get much of a first-hand look at the war during his brief stopover at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan Friday. He briefly conferred with his top commanders and held a video teleconference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In a rousing pep talk
to about 4,000 U.S. troops gathered at Bagram, Obama did acknowledge that they are in "a tough fight.''
The White House has set high expectations. In his West Point speech
a year ago, Obama said his new strategy "will break the Taliban's momentum.'' And, he promised, "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.''
But with six months to go, the outlook is bleak. Neither battlefield victory nor negotiations are even dimly visible on the horizon, and another troop "surge'' is politically and militarily unlikely. The White House, it seems, has no choice but to push on and hope for the best in a bad situation.
A recent Pentagon report
, for instance, asserts that U.S. and allied forces and the new strategy announced by Obama a year ago are "beginning to have cumulative effects.'' But in unusually frank terms, the report concludes that despite combat operations against the Taliban by the 97,000 U.S. troops and 49,000 NATO and allied troops, the insurgents' "capabilities and operational reach have been qualitatively and geographically expanding.'' In other words, despite the U.S. "surge,'' enemy forces are getting better and bigger.
In its ninth year, the Afghan war has killed 1,413 Americans and wounded more than 9,200. This year, 466 U.S. troops have died, including Army 1st. Lt. Scott F. Milley of Sudbury, Mass., who was killed Nov. 30 by small-arms fire in Logar province. He had been working closely with the district sub-governor in Baraki Barak along with his unit, Charlie Co., 2nd Battalion 30th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division's 4th Brigade Combat team of Fort Polk, La.
The Pentagon assessment said Petraeus' strategic drive to squeeze the insurgents by cutting off their supply lines has failed to produce "measurable results;'' that Afghans are losing faith in their government's corrupt judicial system; that promised development projects are languishing because of corruption and other problems, and that the Taliban are recruiting easily from an expanding population of disillusioned Afghan youth.
"A deteriorating stalemate'' is the description of the war's current status by U.S. Army Col. Robert M. Cassidy, who holds a doctorate degree from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and is a member of Petraeus' staff on his third combat tour in the region.
An independent analysis by the International Crisis Group, an independent blue-chip analysis center, looks at the current situation this way: the U.S. strategy "sounds fairly simple: try to pound the Taliban, build support by protecting civilians, lure disillusioned Taliban over to the government, expand access to basic services and create resilient security forces.
"The problem is that none of this is working.''
A worse problem, unfortunately, is that the prospects for breaking off and leaving Afghanistan are even more grim. As the International Crisis Group notes, without outside support the government of President Karzai would collapse. The majority Pashtun Taliban would openly seize control of much of the country, reigniting the civil war with non-Pashtun warlords in the north and west that devastated much of Afghanistan in the 1990s, and drawing in money and weapons from its competing neighbors, Iran, Russia and India.
"Even a partial Taliban victory would provide succor and a refuge for Pakistani jihadi groups'' including Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the Nov. 2008 Mumbai attacks, the Jaish-e-Mohammad and al-Qaeda, the ICG report says. The resulting regional conflict, it said, "would be well beyond the control of a few drone attacks'' that are the main U.S. weapons against Pakistani-based militants.
Afghanistan's most immediate problem is the lack of security against the Taliban, and it is here that the Pentagon assessment is most bleak.
Kabul, the capital and where U.S. and allied headquarters are located, is "relatively secure,'' the Pentagon said. But across the country, shootings and bombings continue "to exceed historical trends,'' up 300 percent since 2007 and up an additional 70 percent since last year. The use of homemade bombs, or IEDs, was up 82 percent from 2009, and civilian casualties rose 53 percent over last year, according to the U.N.
Although U.S. officials and senior military officers often attribute the increasing violence to more widespread and aggressive U.S. military operations, the Pentagon report explicitly cites "a greater frequency and wider dispersion of insurgent-initiated attacks.'' Despite a concerted U.S. effort against IEDs, the main killer of American and allied troops, the Pentagon reported that "homemade explosives are readily available throughout the region.'' U.S. forces have been unable to break the Taliban's "resilient'' logistics and command capabilities, even with a record number of close air support and reconnaissance missions being flown over Afghanistan, the report said.
Apart from "breaking the Taliban's momentum,'' one of Obama's key objectives was to boost the performance of the Afghan government, cut corruption, and show the Afghan people that its government can deliver security, justice and economic development.
But there's not much good news here, either. At a cost of $11 billion this year, the U.S. is training and equipping Afghan army and police units, which the Pentagon report said show "promising areas of progress.'' The army has grown to 134,000 soldiers and the police to 115,500, meeting recruitment goals so far.
But illiteracy, poor eyesight and desertions hamper training and operations. "Improving the quality of the force remains a serious challenge,'' the Pentagon conceded.
In other areas of concern, the Pentagon report cited a survey showing a seven percent decline in Afghans' faith in the police and courts, likely due to corruption. At the same time, the Taliban have established shadow governments and courts in most rural areas of the country, the ICG reported, while the billions in U.S. and international aid flowing into Kabul have created a "kleptocracy'' of political elites, warlords and criminals.
For that reason, almost any measure of economic or development "input'' -- how much is spent -- bears little relation to the result, throwing into doubt the line often used by Petraeus that at last the U.S. has "the inputs' right.''
"Measuring inputs rather than outcomes has allowed bureaucrats to trumpet illusory successes,'' the ICG notes.
International aid officials, for instance, have lauded the Afghan government for progress in implementing the Integrated Economic Development Plan put together at a London conference in January. But on the ground, the Pentagon report acknowledges, actual development is hampered by corruption, black marketeering, smuggling and inadequate control and oversight by the Afghan government.
Anemic economic development matters in a real sense. "Without a change in social and economic conditions,'' the Pentagon report said, the insurgents "will exploit Afghanistan's youth bulge to fuel their recruitment needs.''
Confronting this dismal picture, the White House is expected to release portions of its classified assessment later this month. A White House official said the public portions of the report will include new "benchmarks'' by which the performance of the Afghan government can be judged, a measure tried several years ago in Iraq to little effect.
"This is a process that is diagnostic in nature; this is not a policy review similar to the one that was taken last year,'' White House spokesman Ben Rhodes told reporters during the president's stopover at Bagram Friday. "We have a strategy in place. This is a process that will assess that strategy and review the need for any adjustments.''
The White House assessment is also expected to grapple with the expected timeline of the war. Since Obama's 2009 speech, senior officials, including Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton, have been backing away from the July 2011 date for beginning the troop withdrawal. At the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal last month, they succeeded in moving to the end of 2014 the date on which Afghan security forces can take over -- effectively moving the goalpost five years away.
The public portion of the White House review, at least, is expected to acknowledge problems but spotlight progress. "The challenges on either the security side or the governing side are not new,'' White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters during the president's stop-over in Afghanistan Friday. "We are pleased to be making progress.''
That's a more upbeat version of the view often offered by Petraeus. Asked during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" several months ago if the United States was "winning'' in Afghanistan, Petraeus had this to say:
"We're making progress, and progress is winning, if you will. But it takes the accumulation of a lot of progress ultimately, needless to say, to win overall, and that's going to be a long-term proposition, without question.''
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