Nine years since U.S. forces struck into Afghanistan to destroy the 9/11 terrorists, almost all of the war's objectives remain unreached.
In a few significant ways -- notably the stability of Pakistan's nuclear-armed government -- things have gotten worse. Al-Qaeda remains a dangerous threat to the United States, according to senior intelligence estimates. A record number of U.S. troops are on the ground in Afghanistan, and the Taliban continue to kill Americans and Afghans in increasing numbers. Billions of dollars of U.S. aid has powered an alarming rise in corruption, increasingly cited by Afghans themselves as a reason for a U.S. pullout.
That is why the new White House review
of the war, a portion of which was released with fanfare on Thursday, is couched mostly in the future tense. More than any other conflict in American history, the fight with Islamist extremists is a "generational'' struggle, in words first heard at the George W. Bush
"This continues to be a very difficult endeavor,'' President Obama said Thursday. But he insisted that "we are on track to achieve our goals.''
Under the current U.S. war strategy, American troops will be needed in Afghanistan at least until 2014 and probably longer. The White House gave no indication Thursday how many troops will be withdrawn in July, when Obama had promised
that service members "will begin to come home.'' Beyond that point, how many troops will be needed, and for how long? "We don't know,'' Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted Thursday.
Even in the short-term -- the 12 months since President Obama adopted a new war strategy and sent 30,000 more troops to carry it out -- the cost has been steep without significant improvement. "Progress comes slow and at a very high price in the lives of our men and women in uniform,'' the president acknowledged at a White House briefing ,as dozens of war protestors clamored outside in a light snowfall.
Indeed, American war deaths are up 35 percent over last year, with 729 U.S. troops killed
since the president unveiled his new strategy at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009. The roster of American battle wounded more than doubled, from 2,144 to 4,996. During the 12 months of the new strategy, the war's dollar cost
has leaped from $3.5 billion per month to $5.7 billion a month. Reflecting this gloomy picture, a new poll
shows a healthy majority of Americans -- 60 percent -- believe the war has not been worth fighting.
Against this backdrop, the White House seemed to be promising just more of the same. Administration officials unveiled no new military initiatives against the Taliban, did not describe any aggressive new action to shut down the insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan -- a country which receives $2 billion a year in U.S. aid -- and did not mention any new effort against the corruption of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, also financed by the United States and western governments.
On the ground, the White House reported, 97,500 U.S. troops have pushed the Taliban out of some areas they have controlled, mostly in southern Afghanistan's Helmand and Kandahar provinces. But in the unclassified "overview'' of its secret assessment, the White House acknowledged that these gains are "fragile and reversible'' because only future growth of Afghan military and police forces will be able to keep the Taliban out.
And on the key goal of closing down the safe havens the Taliban and al-Qaeda enjoy in Pakistan, the White House said the United States is "laying the foundation for a strategic partnership'' with Pakistan that may pay off in the future. Shutting down the terrorist sanctuaries "will require greater cooperation with Pakistan,'' the report said.
"Al-Qaeda is hunkered down,'' the president said, adding that while it will take "some time'' to defeat the terrorist organization, "make no mistake, we are going to remain relentless ...'' Meantime, according to the White House report, "terrorist plotting continues against the United States and our allies and partners.''
The public portion of the White House review contains none of the data gathered by the Pentagon and State Department over the past few weeks, and makes no reference to the benchmarks developed by the National Security Council staff to measure specific initiatives relating to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nor does the White House report contain the disquieting assessments
gathered by the staff of Gen. David Petraeus this fall and released recently by the Pentagon.
Still, some good news continues to come from small U.S. troop units working directly with local Afghans on security, economic development, and local government.
In the Dand district of Kandahar, for instance, an Afghan Army battalion of 700 men recently began operations, and the local police, under the tutelage of American GIs, are mounting mobile patrols rather than sticking close to their built-up checkpoints.
Local government, under the direction of district governor Ahmudullah Nazek, recently convened a conference of some 250 locals representing every region, tribe and village in the district. The assembled elders chose 40 men from different tribes to form a district council to make decisions on economic development and to devise ways to resolve local conflicts. It was "inspiring'' to see the bearded elders rise above tribal differences, Army Lt. Col. John Paganini said in an e-mail Thursday.
Paganini commands the 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, which has been working in Dand since last spring.
"We have not had any enemy approach'' to turn themselves in, he wrote. "But we see telltale signs that the population is much less willing to accept enemy operations inside their villages. That is markedly different from the spring
"I'm sure this sounds like everything is going well, and for the most part, things are,'' Paganini wrote.
Citing such tactical and local successes, Gates noted that "the sense of progress among those closest to the fight is palpable ... the military progress made in just the past three-four months has exceeded my expectations.'' Lauding the U.S. troops working in such tough and dangerous conditions, Gates added: "I regret we will be asking more of them in the months ahead.''
U.S. military commanders often point out that the Afghan war didn't really start in earnest until 2008, when resurgent Taliban forces were sweeping across the country and the declining violence in Iraq enabled the Pentagon to refocus on Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the same point Thursday, as if pleading for patience. "This administration, I think it's fair to remind us all, inherited an extraordinarily difficult situation'' in Afghanistan. "There was no strategy, there was no clearly defined mission, and our people, both military and civilians, lacked the resources they needed to get any progress accomplished.
"Today," she said, "we have a very different story to tell ... key parts of our strategy are indeed working well.''
Reminded that the public doesn't share her optimism, she responded, "I'm aware of the popular concern and I – I understand it. But I don't think leaders and certainly this president will not make decisions that are matters of life and death and the future security of our nation based on polling. That would not be something that you will see him or any of us deciding.''