Monday 24 July 2017

White House review cites progress in Afghanistan

Toby Harnden

A White House review of America's war in Afghanistan is set to conclude that progress has begun to emerge after an influx of American forces stabilised the south of the country and expanded security around Kabul.

The review, which will be published this week, was ordered by President Barack Obama as part of a new strategy announced just over a year ago to transform the conflict.

President Obama announced that US troop levels in Afghanistan would rise to 100,000 with the dispatch of an additional 30,000 but also promised a much more open assessment of the battlefield.

"There has been progress," a senior United States military official said last week. "The additional forces have enabled the expansion of security bubbles in Helmand and Kandahar and around Kabul and then in some smaller areas in the east.

"But clearly there is a good deal more work that needs to be done."

The official added that transition to Afghan control "is likely to go forward in 2011" in some areas and there will be "discussions about the future size of the Afghan National Security Forces."

An upbeat assessment would allow commanders greater freedom to argue for troop levels to remain high. Focus has shifted away from the July 2011 deadline, announced by Mr Obama in his speech a year ago at the West Point military academy, for the start of the withdrawal of American troops.

Senior US military figures have made clear that the withdrawal will be modest. In Kabul last week, Gen David Petraeus, commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, was at pains to emphasise that it was only last month that the new surge forces were finally in place.

"We believe that we have arrested the momentum of the Taliban in many parts of Afghanistan, but not all."

Geoff Morrell, spokesman for Robert Gates, the Pentagon Secretary, stressed that the review was not complete and therefore it was "premature to draw any definitive conclusions" about what it might decide.

Mr Gates said he was "convinced" the US strategy was working.

Completion of the review the end of this week, has been complicated by the grave illness of Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr Holbrooke, one of America's most accomplished diplomats was taken ill on Friday during a meeting with Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State.

He underwent 20 hours of heart surgery to repair a tear in his aorta and was still critically ill on Sunday.

"Richard Holbrooke is a towering figure in American foreign policy, a critical member of my Afghanistan and Pakistan team, and a tireless public servant who has won the admiration of the American people and people around the world," Mr Obama said in a statement.

The result of the White House review became something of a foregone conclusion after the recent Nato summit in Lisbon, at which it was agreed that control of the whole of Afghanistan should be transferred to the Afghans by the end of 2014.

Gen Petraeus said that progress in Helmand had only been made recently because "we didn't have the densities right" and British forces were overstretched before the US Marines arrived in June 2009.

"We didn't have the right number of forces. We've spent the past 22 months in Afghanistan getting the inputs right. That doesn't mean that everything that was achieved prior to that point was not without enormous value, because it was...but in terms of a comprehensive civil-military counter-insurgency campaign, inputs were not right."

There had, however, been considerable progress in Helmand, where there are now 20,000 US Marines and close to 10,000 British troops concentrated on the populous central belt of the province.

"It's all hard fought," Gen Petraeus said. "These operations have taken tough casualties. Our forces in Sangin have been up against a very determined enemy.

"The enemy fights you when you try to take away areas that matter to him enormously. If you look at the populated areas of Helmand, Sangin is one of the major remaining areas that the Taliban still has control of."

The White House review comes as new US intelligence reports paint a bleak picture of the security conditions in Afghanistan, stating that the war cannot be won unless Pakistan roots out the Taliban on its side of the border.

American military commanders have challenged the conclusions of the National Intelligence Estimates (NIE), arguing that they are based on old information that does not take into account recent progress. Details of the reports were given in briefings to members of Congress last week.

Although the NIE on Afghanistan cites progress in "inkspots" such as Kabul and parts of Helmand and Kandahar provinces, much of the rest of the country remains Taliban-controlled or at least vulnerable to Taliban infiltration, an American official stated.

The NIE contained public opinion polling finding that Afghans were as willing to cut a deal with the Taliban as they are to work with Nato forces and cites evidence of lagging American evidence in building infrastructure and get Afghan security forces trained.

Telegraph.co.uk

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