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White House Prepares Afghan Policy Review

An Afghan policeman, left, searches men at a check point in Kandahar, 12 Dec, 2010
An Afghan policeman, left, searches men at a check point in Kandahar, 12 Dec, 2010

Top U.S. defense officials say the new strategy for the war in Afghanistan announced by President Barack Obama a year ago is working. Some military and intelligence analysts, however, say the fight is far from over. The comments come as the White House prepares to deliver a widely anticipated year-end review of the administration's Afghan policy.

After more than nine years of war and the surge of 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan, U.S. defense officials say progress is being made in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Speaking recently in Kabul, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the new plan for Afghanistan is successful because Taliban insurgents control much less territory than they did one year ago. "I will go back convinced that our strategy is working and that we will be able to achieve the key goals laid out by President Obama last year."

Those goals include the handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces and to have the Afghan government take the lead for the entire nation by the end of 2014. Obama's goals also include denying al-Qaida a safe haven and the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government.

Georgetown University Professor Bruce Hoffman said that while al-Qaida has been under immense pressure from a major increase in drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border, the terrorist group continues to wage a war of attrition against Western nations.

"Their strategy is to wear us down and also to force us to spend more money on domestic security and to prolong our overseas military commitments to the greatest extent possible," said Hoffman.

The top NATO and U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, said allied and Afghan forces have seized momentum from the Taliban in many key regions, but some still are under the control of insurgents.

"Clearly, again, the Taliban does still have areas in which it has the freedom of movement, in some cases still has arguably the momentum, and so therefore there's more work to be done in those areas," said Petraeus.

Most of the military effort during the surge has focused on the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand in southern Afghanistan, traditionally the stronghold of the Taliban insurgency.
While U.S. troops have made progress in pacifying that region, there are concerns the Taliban is increasing its presence in northern Afghanistan, in areas once considered secure.

Muhammad Tahir is an analyst from Radio Free Europe who has spent considerable time in Afghanistan. During a recent trip to northern Kunduz Province, Tahir said there was significant evidence of Taliban influence there.

"Security is very important. Something must be done with this. Because when you do not have enough security there, there are other guys to fill this security gap today. The other guys are the Taliban, the militants, the foreign or the local. So they will fill that," said Tahir.

Amrullah Saleh is the former director of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security. He said the key to defeating the Taliban is to cut off support in safe havens across the border in Pakistan. Saleh said while this year's surge in U.S. troops has secured some territory, it has failed to achieve the primary goals of the war.

"Has the surge brought a fundamental change in the basics? Has something changed in Pakistan? No. Have we captured, killed or brought into the negotiations table the Taliban leadership? No. Have we defeated al-Qaida? No," said Saleh.

The executive director of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, Imtiaz Gul, said it will take more time to establish whether President Obama's strategy for the war in Afghanistan will work.

"On a tactical level there has been some success reported by General Petraeus and also by the Afghan government," said Gul. "But tactical victories or successes do not necessarily translate into durable, peaceful solutions. So you really have to look at the impact a few further months down the lane to determine as to whether the surge has been successful or not."

The next major deadline in the war strategy is July 2011, when Obama has said he wants to begin a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.