An inescapable conclusion on Afghanistan

by Gordon Lubold

December 11, 2010 07:03 AM EST

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Obama administration’s long-awaited assessment of the Afghanistan war may come as soon as next week. But commanders on the ground here have already reached their own verdict.

“We’re going to need more time,” says Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell.

Campbell runs Regional Command-East, an “area of responsibility” that includes several forward operating bases in Kunar Province near the Pakistan border. Since summer, he says, coalition forces have captured or killed some 3,500 insurgents in Kunar province. But they've also dropped 850 bombs in the process — leaving locals as frustrated with the coalition as they are with the Taliban.

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates toured Afghanistan’s eastern and southern stretches this week, he heard the same story again and again: While the United States is making gains in some areas, the security situation is improving in some areas, there are still big problems in others. The inescapable conclusion: The nine-year-old war isn’t going to end anytime soon.

At a press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai Wednesday, Gates said he will return to Washington "convinced that our strategy is working."

But back home, part of the administration's political strategy turned on the so-called "December review" — a vow to take a hard look at the success of the president's plan to build up the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, then start pulling out in July 2011.

Almost as soon as Obama promised a serious December review, the administration and the Pentagon started to downplay it. Coming so soon after the surge, it couldn’t be definitive. It would be less of a final grade and more of a midterm progress report. And, as military officials have begun to say, "2014 is the new 2011."

So the December review has become just a box to check.

“The review has already been overtaken by events,” Tony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote POLITICO in an e-mail. “The Department of Defense has made it clear that we have made military progress, but have not halted the insurgent momentum,” he wrote. “In short, the most the December report will do is make a further case for strategic patience, and set a few benchmarks for the reports in 2011.”

With Washington focused on tax cuts and the coming Republican takeover of the House, the December review may pass relatively unnoticed. Republicans may clamor for testimony from Gen. David Petraeus, and the Obama administration may or may not make him available.

But come next summer, Cordesman said, the White House will have to show demonstrable progress. “Few in America or outside it will be willing to hear another explanation of why the new strategy has not yet been validated in the field.”

Added a Senate staffer who also e-mailed from Washington: “The administration has begun to come to terms that this is going to be longer and harder than they had hoped, and that the alternatives are all really bad, first and foremost, for our national security, but politically as well,” the staffer told POLITICO.

Success will come if and when U.S. forces can hand over districts and provinces across Afghanistan to the Afghan government. But reporters traveling with Gates in the east and the south this week were not shown any areas that seemed ready.

In Kandahar and Helmand provinces, in the contentious southern reaches of Afghanistan, Gates saw much the same as he did in the east: mixed signs of progress and concern. In some parts of Helmand province, where Maj. Gen. Richard Mills oversees the Marine mission, women and children walk in the streets and markets are open for business. In the “clear-hold-build strategy” of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Marines have “cleared” most areas of insurgents. But they remain busy “holding” the security in some of those areas, and building in many other areas will have to wait.

As Gates met with soldiers in a dusty gravel parking lot — shaking hands and passing out coins — Mills told reporters he was optimistic about Helmand province. But he wouldn’t go so far as to say which areas will be ripe for hand-off to the Afghans.

“I think things are progressing along at a very steady and satisfactory rate,” he said. “I think the conditions will be set in certain parts of the province — certain parts of the province,” he emphasized.

Mills’s area includes Marjah, an insurgent stronghold Marines cleared out earlier this year that is reasonably secure, and Sangin, where insurgents still cling to their poppy crops and drug processing plants. “Sangin is rough,” Mills said. “You have to understand Sangin is the last piece of valuable real estate the insurgent is able to be around,” he said.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said the assessment is still under way. “There is no final product, so it’s premature to draw definite conclusions,” he told reporters here.

An administration official said that the review will feature "inputs" from State, Defense and other agencies. And while State and Defense don't always see eye to eye, the official said there is "violent agreement" about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. "This is truly one of those cases where there's not any space between agencies with regard to what we're seeing," the official said. "You're going to see everyone saying the same thing: We're seeing that there is progress in some areas, and challenges remain."

The review may lead to some tweaks to the strategy, possibly to the way the military has allocated its resources, and some troops may be reassigned to more heavily populated areas, sources here told POLITICO. The military has learned painful lessons in Afghanistan when its troops were dispersed too much and deployed to places where there are fewer people.

And the Obama administration has learned — as the Bush administration and the Soviets did before — that nothing comes easily in Afghanistan.

Widespread corruption, stumbles with the Karzai government, poor governance and a dogged enemy have contributed to the pessimistic narrative about Afghanistan. The growth of the Afghan National Security Forces is only now being seen as a success story. Senior military officials are optimistic that kind of success can expand with time — but only with time.

“It’s a tough, tough fight, it’s going to be a long tough fight and where we have coalition forces, where they’re partnered with the [Afghan National Security Forces], they’re going to do good things and they get better every single day,” Campbell told reporters traveling with Gates.

“I thought Afghanistan was going to be the longest campaign in the long war,” Petraeus said in Kabul Tuesday. He was referring to his own assessment of the war — one he conducted five years ago but still believes today.