Afghan strategy reviewed

U.S. and NATO worry that gains could slip away

December 16, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

WASHINGTON -- Deeply concerned about the prospect of failure in Afghanistan, the Bush administration and NATO have begun three top-to-bottom reviews of the entire mission, from security and counterterrorism to political consolidation and economic development, according to U.S. and alliance officials.

The reviews are an acknowledgment of the need for greater coordination in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida, halting the rising opium production and trafficking that finance the insurgency, and helping the Kabul government extend its legitimacy and control.

Taken together, these efforts reflect a growing apprehension that one of the administration's most important legacies - the routing of Taliban and al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 - may slip away, according to senior administration officials.

Unlike the administration's sweeping review of Iraq policy a year ago, which was announced with great fanfare and ultimately resulted in a large increase in troops, the U.S. reviews of the Afghan strategy have not been announced and are not expected to result in a similar infusion of combat forces, mostly because there are no U.S. troops readily available.

The administration is now committed to finding an international coordinator, described as a "super-envoy," to synchronize the full range of efforts in Afghanistan, and to continue pressing for more NATO troops to fight an insurgency that made 2007 the most violent year since the Taliban and al-Qaida were routed in December 2001.

"We are looking for ways to gain greater strategic coherence," said a senior administration official involved in the review process.

One assessment is being conducted within the U.S. military. Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, has ordered a full review of the mission, including the covert hunt for Taliban and al-Qaida leaders.

Senior State Department officials also said that R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, was coordinating another internal assessment of diplomatic efforts and economic aid - the sorts of "soft-power" assistance beyond combat force that officials agree are required for success.

A third review, one that has previously been part of the public discussion, involves the strategy of NATO, which assumed control of the security operation in Afghanistan last year and has since been criticized by U.S. officials and lawmakers for not being aggressive enough.

At an alliance meeting in Scotland on Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates successfully gained a commitment from NATO to produce what senior Pentagon officials called an "integrated plan" for Afghanistan.

"The intent is to get people to look beyond 2008 and realize this is a longer-term endeavor," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, who was with Gates in Scotland.

The NATO assessment is to be completed for a meeting of alliance heads of state in Bucharest, Romania, next spring. The other reviews are due early next year.

Publicly, administration officials have expressed optimism that the war in Afghanistan can be won, but Gates told Congress last week that his optimism was "tempered by caution."

In recent months, though, Bush's senior advisers have expressed a growing unease.

While there is a sense that this year's troop buildup in Iraq has turned around a dire situation, the effort in Afghanistan has begun to drift at best, officials said. That prompted Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, to oversee internal deliberations that resulted in the push for the new reviews.

The NATO-led security assistance mission in Afghanistan has about 40,000 troops; of those, 14,000 are American. Separately, the U.S. military has 12,000 other troops in Afghanistan conducting specialized counterterrorism missions.

Gates has declined to name specific allies that have not fulfilled pledges for troops, security trainers and helicopters for Afghanistan, or whose governments have placed restrictions on their combat forces. But he has noted that Britain, Canada and Australia had met their commitments and carry their full combat load.

As part of the NATO review, alliance diplomats and military officers are closely watching the actions of Britain, which may be able to commit additional troops to Afghanistan as it reduces its deployments in Iraq.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton, a Democrat of Missouri, was direct in his assessment of the mission in Afghanistan. "I have a real concern that given our preoccupation in Iraq, we've not devoted sufficient troops and funding to Afghanistan to ensure success in that mission," he said.

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