Reporting from Washington — A review of President Obama's war strategy cites progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but leaves unanswered questions that have plagued the U.S. effort since he dispatched additional troops a year ago.
The review unveiled by the president and his top advisors at the White House on Thursday sheds little new light on major questions such as how soon Afghan forces will be able assume more responsibility for security, and whether international troops can effectively choke off access from insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan.
FOR THE RECORD:
Afghan war: An article in Friday's Section A on the release of the Obama administration's review of its strategy in the war in Afghanistan said that Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) is a leading member of the House Intelligence Committee. She is the chair of the intelligence subcommittee of the Committee on Homeland Security. —
The reason is that the answers are largely still in doubt.
A five-page summary of the review's findings released by the White House concludes that the "strategy is showing progress," especially against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and is "setting the conditions to begin a responsible reduction of U.S. forces in July 2011," the date previously set by Obama for beginning withdrawals.
But an undercurrent of uncertainty runs throughout the assessment. "I want to be clear, this continues to be a very difficult endeavor," Obama told reporters at the White House, even as he declared, "We are on track to achieve our goals."
Being on track is not the same as being confident in the outcome. Every mention of indications of progress is accompanied in the report by a caveat noting that the gains are "fragile" and "reversible."
The review seems to keep alive the possibility that the administration could shift strategy next year if isolated gains cannot be cemented despite the presence of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops.
Since ordering 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan a year ago, Obama has moved repeatedly to deepen the U.S. involvement, most recently at the NATO Lisbon summit in November, when he signed on to a timetable that would delay turning over lead security responsibility to the Afghan army and police until 2014.
In that sense, Obama has seemed to side with Gen. David H. Petraeus, his top commander in Afghanistan, as well as some of the president's senior civilian advisors. They suggest that large-scale troop reductions will not be possible for years because Afghan forces remain unable to take over. The White House has emphasized that the pace of the withdrawals next July will be dependent on conditions at the time.
But Vice President Joe Biden and other senior administration aides are known to be skeptical of maintaining a large number of U.S. troops there for several more years. They favor a smaller-scale U.S. effort that focuses on going after Al Qaeda.
Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided a glimpse into the internal administration debate Thursday, telling reporters at the Pentagon that "we'll continue to assess how well the counterinsurgency strategy is working" over the next six months and make adjustments as needed along the way.
He didn't say so, but the implication is clear: If security remains poor next summer, a shift away from a troop-heavy counterinsurgency strategy still remains possible.
The reaction in Congress is of no small concern to the White House. As administration officials forge a relationship with the incoming Republican-led House of Representatives, one of their considerations is how the party will view the Afghanistan conflict.
The president also must brace for division within his own party. As Obama joined his secretaries of State and Defense on Thursday for the public unveiling of the review, scores of antiwar protesters outside chanted loudly, waving signs, banners and gruesome posters depicting civilian casualties of war.
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), a leading member of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke Thursday for those who want the 9-year-old conflict wrapped up as soon as possible. In a statement, she described the White House review as "finely parsed" and said it "avoids some hard choices which need to be made."
A new poll suggests that 60% of Americans think the war is Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting, putting the administration under pressure to emphasize the positive as it asks the public for patience. At any rate, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the matter can't be decided by public opinion.
"I'm well aware of the popular concern, and I understand it," Clinton said. "But I don't think leaders, and certainly this president, will make decisions that are matters of life and death and [affect] the future security of our nation based on polling."
It has been clear to military analysts for some time that Afghan security forces aren't anywhere near being able to fight insurgents on their own, and that the government in Kabul isn't ready to oversee those security forces.
Still, ever since Obama announced his plan to begin withdrawal next summer, there has never been much doubt that he'd be able to fulfill the promise to some degree.
"They'll be able to find some district where they can at least thin out the forces," said Robert Lamb, deputy director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. Already, working lists of the more stable districts are floating around the Pentagon and State Department, he said.
"The question mark," said Lamb, "is what happens two or three years down the road."