President Obama is expected to announce his strategy for Afghanistan before the end of the month, after a fairly secretive, two-month review by senior civilian and military officials, and consultation with allies. But elements of the strategy have begun to emerge in comments by officials involved in, or familiar with, the process. The strategy is expected to lead international efforts in Afghanistan for years to come.
Senior U.S. officials have been avoiding questions about the new Afghanistan strategy for weeks. But in doing so, they have revealed some of its elements, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates did on National Public Radio on March 10.
"I would say that at a minimum, the mission is to prevent the Taliban from retaking power against a democratically elected government in Afghanistan and thus turning Afghanistan, potentially again, into a haven for al Qaida and other extremist groups," he said..
Secretary Gates spoke of identifying short-to-medium-term goals for Afghanistan - things that can be achieved in three to five years.
"We need to have goals, at least in the near to mid-term, that are achievable," he said. "And where there are some benchmarks where we can measure whether we're actually making progress in getting to a better place in Afghanistan, in terms of security, in terms of the credibility of the government and so on."
The defense secretary says that involves increasing the size of the Afghan military, providing more foreign troops to secure its presidential election in August and delivering more civilian assistance to improve the Afghan government's performance, fight corruption and promote economic development. He has also called for better coordination of international efforts.
Another part of the administration's new approach appears to be growing support for Afghan government efforts to reconcile with some elements of the Taliban and other militant organizations. President Obama has said that a similar policy had success in Iraq and might work in Afghanistan although he acknowledged there are big differences between the two counties. Secretary Gates also addressed the issue of reconciliation at a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Poland in February.
"We have said all along that ultimately some sort of political reconciliation has to be part of the long-term solution in Afghanistan," he said. "And so I think that if there is a reconciliation, if insurgents are made to put down their arms, if the reconciliation is essentially on the terms being offered by the government, then I think that we would be very open to that.
Other aspects of the emerging U.S. approach are also being made public. A senior defense official told reporters this week that the first goal is to improve security to be able to address other issues from what the official called "a position of strength." That is why President Obama announced a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan even before the strategy review was completed. The senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the United States also wants to ensure "that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region ceases to be a safe haven for" terrorists.
Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman spoke about that aspect of the emerging strategy on Friday.
"When you're looking at Afghanistan, you have to look at it from a regional perspective," he said. "Well, that's exactly what the Afghanistan strategy is designed to do. And what's happening in Pakistan is integral to what's happening in Afghanistan. "
Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary Gates and Vice President Joe Biden, have been consulting with Afghan, Pakistani and NATO officials as part of the strategy review. They hope that will not only improve the final document, but also will make it more likely that other nations will accept it as the guiding strategy of the broader international effort in Afghanistan.
Analyst and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution says a key moment will come when President Obama presents his strategy at NATO's summit meeting in France and Germany starting April 3.
"That'll be an important discussion because an important part of getting allied buy-in will be to the extent that we have a persuasive strategy, that others say 'this strategy will work, it can work,'" he said "And that can be key to getting either military support or additional civilian reconstruction support from the other allies."
The strategy review group is expected to finish its draft report in the coming week or so, with important work to follow by top civilian and military officials, and final decisions to be made by President Obama. Officials say he will publicly present his plan in less than three weeks, shortly before he meets with his NATO counterparts.