WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's much-anticipated annual review of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan is upbeat on progress and reaffirms that the strategy of transferring responsibility for security to Afghan forces is still on track to be completed by 2014. At the same time, however, the assessment lays the intellectual framework for a "sustained, long-term commitment to the region" that makes clear the United States will continue to be involved beyond the withdrawal date.
"The accelerated deployment of U.S. and international military and civilian resources to the region that began in July 2009 and continued after the President's policy review last fall has enabled progress and heightened the sense of purpose within the United States Government, among our coalition partners, and in the region," reads the introduction of the review. "As a result, our strategy in Afghanistan is setting the conditions to begin the responsible reduction of U.S. forces in July 2011. This review also underscores the importance of a sustained long-term commitment to the region -- in Pakistan, by way of our growing strategic partnership; and in Afghanistan, as reflected by our own long-term commitment, as well as the NATO Lisbon Summit's two outcomes: the goal for Afghans to assume the lead for security across the country by 2014, and NATO's enduring commitment beyond 2014."
The overview of the review focuses on al Qaeda, Pakistan and Afghanistan and is just five pages in length. An administration official told The Huffington Post that this is all that would be formally released to the public. The President will be providing an update on the Af-Pak strategy to the American people on Thursday, as he presents the findings of the review.
Underscoring the long-term challenge in the region, the report states that al Qaeda's leadership remains able to advance operations against the United States and its allies. At the same time, the review seems to try to lower public expectations about success in the war on terror, making clear that the threat won't be completely wiped out.
"Al-Qa'ida's eventual strategic defeat will be most effectively achieved through the denial of sanctuaries in the region and the elimination of the group's remaining leadership cadre," concludes the report. "Even achieving these goals, however, will not completely eliminate the terrorist threat to U.S. interests. There are a range of other groups, including some affiliated with al-Qa'ida, as well as individuals inspired by al-Qa'ida, who aim to do harm to our nation and our allies. Our posture and efforts to counter these threats will continue unabated."
Pakistan remains a particular challenge. National Intelligence Estimates released last week, which are prepared by the Director of National Intelligence, painted a bleak picture of U.S. efforts in the region and concluded the war in Afghanistan cannot be won unless Pakistan roots out militants on its side of the border.
"With regard to al-Qa'ida's Pakistan-based leadership and cadre, we must remain focused on making further progress toward our ultimate end state, the eventual strategic defeat of al-Qa'ida in the region, which will require the sustained denial of the group's safe haven in the tribal areas of western Pakistan, among other factors," adds the administration's strategic review.
"This sends a very mixed message," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), one of the strongest congressional Republican critics of the war, adding he's still concerned about whether the United States is essentially propping up a corrupt government in Afghanistan. "This is the longest war in the history of the United States. I still see no end in sight. I think the President continues to fail to define success. I don't think he's ever done that. ... My concern is we're still trying to fight a politically correct war that will continue in perpetuity."
"These excerpts actually appear more measured than recent comments by Secretary Gates and General Petraeus -- while it argues that there has been progress against the Taliban, it acknowledges that 'these gains remain fragile and reversible,'" said Caroline Wadhams, director for South Asia Security Studies at the Center for American Progress. "That's an important admission. It's also interesting to note that while it is not wildly positive about the gains made and simultaneously states all of the remaining challenges, it still makes the case for withdrawal beginning in July 2011. The Obama administration is showing its pragmatism in foreign policy, as in the West Point speech."
The review concludes that the military surge of 30,000 troops has been a success, saying it "reduced overall Taliban influence and arrested the momentum they had achieved in recent years in key parts of the country." It adds, however, that successes remain "fragile and reversible."
"Consolidating those gains will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks," notes the report. "Durability also requires continued work with Afghanistan to transfer cleared areas to their security forces. We are also supporting Afghanistan's efforts to better improve national and sub-national governance, and to build institutions with increased transparency and accountability to reduce corruption - key steps in sustaining the Afghan government. And we have supported and focused investments in infrastructure that will give the Afghan government and people the tools to build and sustain a future of stability."
In early 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be hosting another session of the U.S.-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral dialogue with foreign ministers from both countries. The review adds that the U.S. government will continue the U.S. Pakistan Strategic Dialogue and sustain senior-level engagement, including an exchange of visits by Presidents Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
Obama directed this National Security Staff-led diagnostic review in December 2009. They convened eight working-group and deputy-level meetings from Nov. 16 through Dec. 1. An interagency team also visited Afghanistan and Pakistan from October 25 through November 4 to discuss the situation with key leaders first-hand.
Sam Stein contributed reporting.