- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Obama administration on Thursday said it is committed to the strategic defeat of al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, noting that the terrorist group continues to launch attacks against the U.S. and its allies from havens in the region.

Presenting a review of his administration’s Afghanistan war strategy at the White House, President Obama warned that if an “even wider insurgency were to engulf Afghanistan, that would give al Qaeda even more space to plan these attacks.”

Mr. Obama said it is important to remember that U.S. troops are in Afghanistan because that is where the terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden planned the Sept. 11 attacks.

The president had ordered 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, which the review found had arrested, and in some instances reversed, the Taliban’s momentum. But it cautioned that those gains are “fragile and reversible.”

Meanwhile, a roadside bomb on Thursday destroyed a crowded minibus in western Afghanistan, killing 14 passengers who were all members of an extended family, according to a provincial official cited by the Associated Press.

In a separate incident, the Afghan Defense Ministry said a NATO airstrike in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province on Wednesday killed four Afghan soldiers who were mistaken for militants.

At the White House, Mr. Obama described the task in Afghanistan as difficult but added that “we are on track to achieve our goals.”

He said that as a result of increased coalition pressure, senior al Qaeda leaders have been killed and the group is finding it harder to recruit and train fighters and to plot and launch attacks.

“In short, al Qaeda is hunkered down,” Mr. Obama said.

However, a five-page summary of the review provided by the White House said that while al Qaeda has suffered losses, its ability to plot attacks against the U.S. and its allies has not been halted, just diminished.

Mr. Obama said it would take time to defeat al Qaeda, which he described as a ruthless and resilient enemy bent on attacking the U.S. “But make no mistake, we are going to remain relentless in disrupting and dismantling that terrorist organization,” he said.

The review explained that the U.S. remains “relentlessly focused” on Pakistan-based al Qaeda because of the “strategic nature of the threat posed by its leadership, and in particular the group’s continued pursuit of large-scale, catastrophic anti-Western attacks and its influence on global terrorism.”

It said al Qaeda continues to view the U.S. as its principal target and events over the past year indicate some of its affiliates and allies also are more aggressively pursuing such attacks.

It also described Pakistan and Afghanistan as al Qaeda’s operational base.

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has further heightened a priority to prevent extremists, including core al Qaeda, from acquiring those weapons.

The review concluded that the U.S. “must remain focused on making further progress toward our ultimate end state, the eventual strategic defeat of al Qaeda 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.”

It found “notable operational gains” that will enable U.S. troops to begin returning home in July. However, it said, the drawdown will be a “responsible reduction.”

Mr. Obama said the U.S. goal is not to defeat every last threat to Afghan security or to get involved in nation-building. Rather, it is to focus on “disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and preventing its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”

In a speech at West Point last December, Mr. Obama said U.S. security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In that speech, he described the region as the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda.

The review acknowledged that it would take time to defeat al Qaeda. But, it added, the U.S. is taking steps to prevent terrorist groups from regenerating or re-establishing a haven in Pakistan and Afghanistan that would pose a strategic threat to the U.S. and its allies and interests abroad.

It noted significant progress in disrupting and dismantling the Pakistan-based leadership of al Qaeda over the past year.

A covert U.S. program of Predator drone strikes in the lawless tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has resulted in the deaths of several al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Prominent among those killed by the unmanned aerial vehicles were Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and al Qaeda’s No. 3, Sheik Sa’id al-Masri.

While the Obama administration says its strategy is showing signs of progress, it is also mindful of the challenges it faces to make these gains “durable and sustainable.”

According to the review, al Qaeda’s strategic defeat will be achieved most effectively through the denial of sanctuaries in the region and the elimination of the group’s remaining leadership cadre.

Earlier, Mr. Obama discussed the review with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

Mr. Zardari is expected to visit Washington next year, and Mr. Obama will make a trip to Pakistan.

The existence of havens for militants in the tribal areas of western Pakistan remains a key threat to the U.S.-led coalition’s strategy in Afghanistan.

While the Pakistani military has suffered heavy casualties in its fight against extremists, some elements in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the army continue to have a cozy relationship with militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network.

The review emphasized the need for a “sustained denial” of havens.

Acknowledging major Pakistani offensives against the militants, Mr. Obama said, “Nevertheless, progress has not come fast enough, so we will continue to insist to Pakistani leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders must be dealt with.”

The Pakistani government has been resisting U.S. pressure to send its military into North Waziristan, where U.S. officials suspect the top leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban are based.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said it is important for Pakistan to “keep making progress and eliminating sanctuaries for extremists, and we must continue to close the gap between Kabul and Islamabad.”

Mrs. Clinton said she is aware of growing public opinion against the war in Afghanistan. “I understand it,” she said. “But I don’t think leaders [-] and certainly this president will not [-] make decisions that are matters of life and death and the future security of our nation based on polling.”

She described the review as “very, very hard-nosed.” The administration is “clear-eyed” about the way ahead, she added.

However, Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the report leaves many questions unanswered.

“There is no clear outline of how our progress in the region can become sustainable, or how the Afghan government and security forces can prevent al Qaeda and the Taliban from re-establishing safe havens in the long term,” Mr. Skelton said.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the U.S. strategy and resources “must match our objectives and our core mission, which is not building a perfect state, but defeating al Qaeda and denying it and its partners a secure base from which to launch attacks on the United States and its allies.”

U.S. and Afghan forces are suffering greater casualties as they push into areas controlled by the Taliban.

“But as a result of the tough fight under way, the Taliban control far less territory today than they did a year ago,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said. “The bottom line is that the military progress made in just the past three to four months, since the last of the additional 30,000 U.S. troops arrived, has exceeded my expectations.”

He said Afghan security forces are ahead of schedule in their preparations for taking the lead on security. U.S. forces have their sights set on a 2014 date to hand over control to their Afghan counterparts.