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Reviewing the Afghan War

Authors: Jayshree Bajoria, and Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
December 16, 2010

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A White House review of Afghan war strategy (WashPost) confirmed that a July drawdown of U.S. troops is on track despite uneven progress. President Barack Obama mandated the year-end review following his announcement of a thirty thousand-troop surge in December 2009. Details released from the report suggest headway in clearing the Taliban from Kandahar and Helmand provinces, though other challenges remain. Making a statement on the review Thursday, the president reiterated that the U.S. core goal remained to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda" in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The report summary makes clear that the pace of withdrawal will be based on changing conditions on the ground (BusinessWeek). Ambiguity about the pace of troop drawdown is generating pressure from military commanders and Republicans who would like a measured reduction as well as Democrats who expect a prompt withdrawal (NYT).

Even as administration officials tried to downplay the review's significance as a strategic turning point, two National Intelligence Estimates (NYT) released just a day before the review presented a far more pessimistic view of the war. The documents contradict much of the U.S. military's recent optimism and suggest a limited chance for U.S. success (LAT) unless Pakistan ends tacit support for the Afghan Taliban in border sanctuaries. Ranking military commanders dispute the reports' findings, claiming much of the intelligence is obsolete and unrepresentative of the recent months' progress from "intensive operations with the full complement of surge forces." CFR's Max Boot and Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who served two combat tours in Iraq, agree. They write that "the buildup of U.S. forces, completed only this fall, is already having a considerable impact (LAT), although public opinion hasn't caught on yet.”

The death of Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan on Monday, also came as a significant disruption at a critical time.

The unclassified summary of the strategy review released Thursday indicates that old difficulties continue to plague the war effort, including Afghan corruption and the persistence of terrorist safe havens in Pakistani border regions. President Obama welcomed the Pakistani army's offensives against militants in the border regions with Afganistan but added that "progress has not come fast enough." However, the review avoids outright criticism of the Pakistani security establishment for continuing to support some militant groups on their side of the border, or of the Afghan government for failing to fight corruption. Observers suggest there is still disagreement within the Obama administration on questions like the overall scope of the war and how much to pressure the Pakistani government. "Ideally, part of what [Obama's] trying to do is get the Taliban to come to grips with the fact that we're not going to bug out," Stephen Biddle, CFR's senior fellow for defense policy, told NPR. "But balance that with trying to convince progressives in his own party that we're not staying there forever. That's a hard tightrope to walk."

The White House said some of these contentious issues would be addressed in meetings of the National Security Council, and that these meetings would dictate the rate of withdrawal. Ahead of the review, a CFR Task Force Report on Afghanistan and Pakistan advised that it should be "a clear-eyed assessment of whether there is sufficient overall progress to conclude that the strategy is working." If not, the report argues that "a more significant drawdown to a narrower military mission would be warranted." CFR's Daniel Markey warned that the review should not turn into "a bean-counting exercise (ForeignPolicy) that ratifies business as usual." A serious review, he advised, will "encourage a policy that charts a new course--one designed to turn the tide of Afghan politics in a direction that encourages the U.S. and Afghan governments to work more productively on accomplishing their shared mission."

Analysis:

Andrew Exum of Foreign Policy outlines five "ways to win" in Afghanistan and reverse the deterioration of conditions in America's longest war.

Washington Post op-ed columnist George Will compares Taliban resistance to the 1968 North Vietnamese Tet Offensive.

CFR President Richard N. Haass says that as the United States moves away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is an opportunity to reorient U.S. foreign policy.

Background:

This Pakistan Crisis Guide from CFR offers a range of expert perspectives on Pakistan's history and future prospects.

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