Analysis: Afghan review backs U.S. plan despite violence

By Ross Colvin and Paul Tait

WASHINGTON/KABUL (BestGrowthStock) – A December review of the Afghanistan war is expected to say the U.S. strategy is working despite increased violence and record casualties, and that a July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing can be met.

But General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, will say that since the addition of 30,000 U.S. troops was just completed in late summer, it will take more time to get a complete picture of how the strategy is working, analysts said. That could affect the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal.

“There will be progress but a lot of ambiguity about interpreting it because of the late start to a lot of these offensives and the seasonality of warfare in Afghanistan,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised Petraeus in the past.

Ahead of the review, U.S. officials have been offering more upbeat assessments of a war widely perceived as going badly for the United States and its NATO allies nine years after U.S.-led forces invaded to topple the Taliban for sheltering al Qaeda.

Petraeus has ordered stepped-up operations — making greater use of elite special forces — that have killed or captured hundreds of Taliban militants in recent weeks.

In late October, he said the Taliban’s momentum has “broadly been arrested.” But critics and security analysts say Petraeus is presenting an overly rosy picture.

“It is far from clear what impact these deaths, the rate of these deaths, and the prospect of more deaths are having on the calculus of the larger Taliban phenomenon and its senior decision-makers thinking,” said global intelligence company STRATFOR.

A NATO official in Brussels expressed concern that Taliban commanders were being quickly replaced and that killing current insurgent leaders could mean they would simply be replaced by “younger, less reasonable” radicals.

U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the review after announcing a new strategy last December to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan.

When he rolled out his new strategy, Obama set the deadline to start withdrawing forces under pressure from anti-war liberal Democrats. But if the review says the strategy is working, that could give him more room to agree with generals in the field to keep forces there longer to ensure that military gains are sustained.

Although the Afghan war was not a major issue in last week’s U.S. congressional elections, Obama is still under pressure to show positive results, especially after attacking his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, for his prosecution of the war.

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Republicans, who criticized the July deadline for potentially emboldening the Taliban, will have greater oversight of the war after seizing control of the House of Representatives last week. But a top Republican has signaled that the party will not try to amend the July 2011 date.

An administration official stressed the review was never meant to lead to an overhaul of war strategy — unlike Obama’s first review of strategy in Afghanistan and a 2006 Iraq war review that led then-President George W. Bush to boost U.S. forces under Petraeus.

The review “is not designed to change the direction we are going in in Afghanistan because we believe we have the right strategy. What the report is is a candid look at how the strategy is working,” the official said.

“There are improvements (in security) we believe set the conditions for the beginning to talk about the transition to an Afghan lead beginning in July 2011,” he said.

Other U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said training of Afghan forces could be one area where the strategy is “tweaked.”

Current U.S. targets call for expanding the Afghan army and police to 306,000 by next October from more than 260,000 now. A more ambitious target could be set to increase the force further beyond October 2011.

Another area would be looking at ways to keep pressure on militants in Pakistan, where strikes by pilotless U.S. drone aircraft have reached all-time highs in recent months.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is pressing for the review to address a sharp rise in civilian casualties, as well as the role of private security companies and ending or reducing the number of night-time raids and house searches, Karzai’s chief spokesman, Waheed Omer, told Reuters.

In a mid-year report, the United Nations said civilian casualties had spiked by 31 percent in the first six months of 2010 against the same period of 2009. It blamed three-quarters of the deaths on insurgents.

More than 479 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since December, when the new strategy was unveiled.

The willingness of Petraeus to talk up the U.S. military successes in Afghanistan has surprised those who remember him as a taciturn general in Iraq who was always cautious not to appear overly optimistic about gains on the battlefield.

There is much speculation in Washington as to why he has been so talkative.

One theory is that he is trying to shape the Taliban’s view of the war as the group is engaged in preliminary talks with Karzai’s government. Another is that he is trying to stiffen the resolve of politicians in Washington ahead of the report.

The Taliban is also closely watching the review. Obama should not think that “if we find this person, destroy this group or that movement, the issue will be resolved,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Editing by Kristin Roberts and Vicki Allen)

Analysis: Afghan review backs U.S. plan despite violence