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Experts: US Afghan Strategy OK, But It's Still Early

President Barack Obama delivers a statement in the White House on the the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review, 16 Dec 2010
President Barack Obama delivers a statement in the White House on the the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review, 16 Dec 2010

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Al Pessin

President Barack Obama's review of his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he made public on Thursday, says the approach he announced a year ago is working.  Still, the president acknowledged that progress is, in his words, "fragile and reversible."

And while officials say the effort is on track to meet key targets in 2011 and 2014, experts say it is still early to make definitive pronouncements about whether the strategy is really working.  

There were no real surprises in the president's strategy review.  He says that a year after he announced it, and fewer than six months after the additional troops he deployed arrived, the strategy is beginning to work.

"We are on track to achieve our goals," said President Obama. "We are making considerable gains toward our military objectives."

But the president also acknowledged that the gains are difficult and fragile, and he said more work is also needed on governance and economic development.  He also said Pakistan must do more to eliminate insurgent safe havens on its side of the border.

As the president spoke, U.S. forces were close to the end of their deadliest year in Afghanistan, with nearly 500 killed and 5,000 wounded.

The president had promised to review his strategy at this juncture, in part to take a different approach from his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who was accused of "staying the course" with his Iraq strategy long after it became clear to many experts that it was not working.

But now some of those same experts say President Obama's review came too early.

Michael O'Hanlon follows defense issues at the Brookings Institution. "It's too soon to expect major results," said O'Hanlon. "So this really is an interim review.  There could be some modest policy changes that come out of it, but nothing fundamental about the strategy is likely to change."

Experts say progress is difficult to make and nearly as hard to measure in Afghanistan, with its harsh terrain, entrenched corruption, complex tribal structure and strong Taliban influence.  U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that for now, any progress must be measured only at the most local levels, and the job of military units is to expand the new small zones of stability, and improve the Afghan forces' ability to sustain them.

"The whole idea in the military strategy is to halt the momentum of the Taliban, reverse it, degrade their capabilities and deny them control of major population centers," said Gates. "At the same time, you build the capacity of the Afghan national security forces to take on a degraded Taliban."

No one can say at this stage of the process whether that will actually happen, or when.  But President Obama is committed to beginning a U.S. troop drawdown next July, and he and other NATO leaders have set the end of 2014 as the target date for ending their troops' combat role in Afghanistan.

A former foreign policy adviser to Republican Senator John McCain, Richard Fontaine, now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, is skeptical about the first deadline, and cautious about the second one.

"I don't think that by July, 2011 we're going to be able to see such dramatic successes that we're going to be able to draw down American troops in any significant fashion," said Fontaine. "By 2014, I think we will either know whether we have made very significant progress and can turn this over to the Afghans, or whether progress is simply impossible, in which case we're going to have to make some very tough choices about what comes next."

In fact, officials say if progress stalls and current gains are reversed, they want to know much sooner than 2014. There will be another American review in a few months, to prepare for the initial troop withdrawal, and a more extensive one at the end of next year.

The 2010 White House Afghan strategy review describes a situation pretty much as had been expected at this juncture - progress but still problems. President Obama, the congress and allied governments will be watching carefully for evidence of continuing and less fragile progress as they reevaluate their strategy and their troop levels during the coming year.

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