A White House review of President Barack Obama‘s Afghanistan war strategy reported on Thursday that allied forces are making headway against the Taliban and al Qaeda but that serious challenges remain.
“In Afghanistan, the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, although these gains remain fragile and reversible,” an unclassified summary of the review found.
“Most important, al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001,” it said.
The long-awaited review said the United States was on track to begin drawing down its troops and putting Afghan forces in the lead in 2011 even as it cited hurdles to progress including the difficulty of rebuilding Afghanistan and the need for Pakistan’s “sustained denial” of insurgent safe havens.
Despite the cautious optimism from the White House a year after Obama ordered an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, the president must overcome skepticism on Capitol Hill and among Americans tired of the long, expensive conflict.
Civilian and military casualties have reached a record high in Afghanistan this year as the Taliban insurgency expands.
Malcolm Chalmers, a professor at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, called the review’s tone positive.
“But there’s a lot of very difficult issues that remain, the fundamental political issues, and without addressing the fundamental political issues of Afghan governance and its relations with its neighbors, there will not be a solution to this conflict,” he said.
The review comes at the end of the bloodiest year since U.S.-backed Afghan forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, with almost 700 foreign troops killed so far. Yet Afghan civilians bear the brunt of the conflict as insurgents expand from strongholds into once peaceful areas in the north and west.
A U.S. and NATO force of 150,000 troops, including 100,000 Americans, has pushed back the Taliban in cities like southern Kandahar, an encouraging sign as Washington hopes to start putting growing ranks of Afghan soldiers in charge.
But in the absence of major strides by Afghan forces, who are growing rapidly in numbers but still learning to shoot and, in many cases to read, those gains “cannot be maintained without continued U.S. involvement, both military and financial,” said Caroline Wadhams, an expert on South Asia at the Center for American Progress.
Calling Pakistan “central” to success in the region, the review found al Qaeda had been weakened but was still capable of plotting attacks against the United States.
Officials said progress in ties with Islamabad, which Washington is pressuring to go after militants that launch attacks in Afghanistan, had been substantial but “uneven.”
The White House noted the need for tweaks to its Pakistan strategy, including energized aid work along the two countries’ wild border as part of efforts to corral insurgents.
The review is unlikely to end debate within the U.S. government over strategy for the region. Officials say the intelligence community has a gloomier view of the situation than that of military leaders.
The New York Times reported this week that two recent classified intelligence reports said the Afghanistan strategy had little chance of success unless Pakistan prevented insurgents from launching attacks from border sanctuaries.
While the troop increase is bearing some fruit, experts say security gains will not be sustained if a weak, corrupt Afghan state is not strengthened in the near term.
In some areas, Taliban intimidation has brought local government to a halt. Western suspicions that President Hamid Karzai has failed to crack down on corrupt officials have helped widen a rift with the Afghan leader. After nine years of aid efforts, poverty and illiteracy remain widespread.
The review called reducing corruption as a key step in “sustaining the Afghan government.”
“If governance is one of our Achilles’ heels, we have to weight our resources there,” Andrew Exum, a scholar at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank close to the White House, said this week.
The war in Afghanistan, which now costs at least $113 billion a year, is a fiscal drain as Obama struggles to revive the U.S. economy and is a source of tension with some fellow Democrats who see little chance of quick success.
It threatens to become more of a political liability for Obama next spring, when debate over bringing home U.S. troops sharpens.
“I think there’s a willingness to allow the strategy some more time, but in the spring we may see some more crucial decisions being made,” said Lisa Curtis, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
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