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Obama team works on overhaul of Afghanistan, Pakistan policy

The president is likely to decide on the details of a U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan in the coming days, Gates says.

February 11, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration plans to complete its overhaul of U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan by April, before a crucial NATO summit, the White House said Tuesday in announcing the new head of its review.

Before the reassessment is complete, President Obama is likely to decide on the details of a U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said.

"The president will have several options in front of him, and I think he will make those decisions probably in the course of the next few days," Gates said.

Stepping up its efforts in the region, the administration announced that Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and harsh critic of former President Bush's handling of the conflict in Afghanistan, will chair the White House review.

Now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, Riedel will report to Obama and to retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones Jr., the national security advisor. The White House review is one of several underway in the administration.

Riedel's assignment is to bring together the various strategy proposals.

Riedel last month accused Bush of a "halfhearted effort" in Afghanistan, and he supports plans to send additional troops, warning that both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are in a perilous state.

He also has urged stepped-up road construction and economic development, a position that could be at odds with recent Pentagon thinking. Gates has urged more modest U.S. goals in Afghanistan.

Government officials outside the White House have expressed frustration with the Afghanistan policy planning, saying the administration's early efforts seemed disorganized.

Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the Central Command, and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have all worked on reviews. Riedel will guide the White House assessment, said an administration official, speaking about internal discussions on condition of anonymity.

"This is the review, it has a framework, it has a chair, it has a time frame," the administration official said. "It has wheels on it now."

Riedel will work with Holbrooke and Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of Defense for policy. Officials said the overhaul must be finished by April, when Obama attends a NATO summit in Europe commemorating the 60th anniversary of the alliance.

Obama offered a hint of his likely policy at a news conference Monday, saying a key goal would be eliminating havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan in which the Taliban and other extremist groups operate.

U.S. commanders have said they could send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan this year, nearly doubling the American contingent.

Gates has said that two brigades could be ready to go to Afghanistan by spring and a third by summer.

Riedel, in writings and interviews, has said southern Afghanistan is in chaos and the Taliban is encroaching on Kabul, the capital.

He has called Pakistan "the most dangerous country" in the world because it has nuclear weapons, allows havens for extremists and is a battleground for forces of "reactionary Islamic extremism."

Some military leaders have suggested talks with moderate Taliban groups, but Riedel has been skeptical about efforts at political compromise.

"Until you break that sense of confidence and momentum, I don't think you are going to see any serious willingness on the part of the Taliban to want to negotiate," Riedel, a National Security Council official during the Clinton administration, said in a recent interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.

But Riedel's colleagues at Brookings said he was unlikely to ruffle feathers as he tries to bring the various strategy proposals together.

"He is not an at-odds guy. He is not a combative person," said Melissa Skolfield, vice president of communications at Brookings. "He is by nature a fact-finding, conciliatory expert."

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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