A major independent research institute has issued a report calling for urgent and significant changes in U.S. military strategy toward Afghanistan. The call comes just as President Obama has launched his own strategy review, and as NATO defense ministers prepare to meet this week, with the alliance's effort in Afghanistan high on their agenda.
The report by the Rand Corporation says the United States needs a new "game-changing" strategy in Afghanistan, emphasizing engagement with local officials, development of the Afghan security forces and fighting corruption. The report also says the United States and its allies need to help the Afghan government defend its borders, improve its relations with Pakistan and use its authority to manage foreign assistance, which the report says would increase its credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people.
The report appears to mirror comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has said the United States needs to focus on key short-term goals in Afghanistan, including improving security, rather than on the broader Bush Administration goals, such as building a democratic society. Gates has also said one of the main U.S. goals in Afghanistan should be to ensure it is not a base for terrorists, as it was at the time of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the United States.
One of the Rand report's authors, Christine Fair, agrees with that.
"Whether or not the Taliban remain in Afghanistan is really not our concern," she said. "What we really care about is that it doesn't become a safe haven for international terrorists seeking to harm us, our interests, or our assets."
The Rand report does not specifically call for more U.S. troops to be sent to Afghanistan, but it does say the United States and its allies need to provide "sustainability" when they make gains on security, economic development or other issues. Pentagon officials say they do need more troops to provide that, and to reverse gains made by insurgents during the last two years. The U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan has asked for as many as 30,000 more troops. Secretary Gates has endorsed the proposal, and after some delay President Obama is expected to decide soon on at least some of the request.
On Tuesday, Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman stressed what defense officials see as the urgency of getting more U.S. forces to Afghanistan.
"We feel that the situation is such that we need to add additional military capability to the security element there so that we can do any number of things," he said. "We've got some important upcoming elections, we've got the spring [fighting season] coming up, we've had some resurgence in attacks. And so additional military capability is certainly something I would expect to see soon. And we have already."
Whitman was referring to the one additional combat brigade of about 3,500 soldiers, and additional support troops, that have already arrived in Afghanistan.
The Rand report comes the week after the White House announced a high-level Afghanistan policy review, consolidating a series of government, military and private studies conducted in recent months. The president wants the review finished by the time he attends the NATO summit at the beginning of April.