- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

President Obama is likely to scale back U.S. ambitions for troubled Afghanistan, redefining victory in a war that his closest military and foreign-affairs advisers say cannot be won on the battlefield.

Even before a planned doubling of U.S. forces in Afghanistan later this year, the new administration is lowering its sights — and lowering expectations. Although there is general agreement that the United States will be in Afghanistan for years to come, the new focus is on how to show even small security gains and development progress quickly.

“That’s clearly the message I’m getting … ‘What are the near-term goals going to be?’” Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said when asked about Mr. Obama’s agenda for Afghanistan.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said the world hasn’t done enough to provide economic, political and military resources to Afghanistan, and he said the U.S. and its allies lack a coherent strategy. The result is a country backsliding into Taliban control, Mr. Biden said.

He warned of higher U.S. military casualties as the Obama administration adds as many as 30,000 troops to the Afghan war, where the Taliban is resurgent and where critics say the Bush administration was slow to respond.

“The bottom line here is, we’ve inherited a real mess,” Mr. Biden told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We’re about to go in and try to essentially reclaim territory that’s been effectively lost.”

The request by military commanders for more troops was endorsed by the Bush administration and seconded by the Obama team. The new troops, who will nearly double the size of the U.S. fighting force, are a hedge against further deterioration while the administration comes up with a more coherent, long-term strategy.

The new president is expected to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon this week, with both Afghanistan and Iraq on the agenda. The wars are closely linked because some of the troops Mr. Obama wants to send to Afghanistan are fighting in Iraq.

Mr. Obama has promised to refocus the U.S. military agenda away from what he considers a misbegotten war in Iraq, and last week he called Afghanistan and Pakistan the central front in the struggle against terrorism and extremism.

He has offered few specifics about how his approach would turn around a fight that Adm. Mullen, the nation’s top military officer, says the U.S. is not winning.

A few things are becoming clear, however, and none more stark than the notion of what winning in desperately poor, decentralized and deeply traditional Afghanistan would look like.

It is likely to be less about democracy and more about old-fashioned charity and development work. It will be measured by small, local gains in security and governance that give Afghans a reason to reject the efficiencies and protection offered by the Taliban insurgency.

Mr. Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, suggested last week that the previous administration had unrealistic ideas about what it could accomplish in Afghanistan.

That’s a common criticism from outside analysts and one of the conclusions of an unreleased internal White House report prepared last year, so it was notable more for who was talking than for what was said.

“One of the points where I suspect both administrations come to the same conclusion is that the goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far into the future,” Mr. Gates said during a Pentagon news conference.

“We need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years in terms of re-establishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al Qaeda, preventing the re-establishment of terrorism, better performance in terms of delivery of services to the people, some very concrete things.”

Adm. Mullen added that “the right governance development in Afghanistan, along with the economic development” are essential, “because, over time, without that, all the military troops in the world aren’t going to make any difference.”

The Taliban are stronger now than at any point since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, which toppled a Taliban government in Kabul and dismantled al Qaeda havens in the country. The Taliban regrouped with help from Islamic militants and tribal chiefs across the rugged border with Pakistan and now controls chunks of the east and south.

The insurgents are fighting a modern version of an age-old war, relying on the classic insurgent tactics of ambush, assassination and anonymity to tie up a vastly superior U.S. and NATO force of some 60,000 spread over an anarchic country that sprawls from Iran to China.

Critics of the management of the war include Mr. Obama’s new national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, who last year warned that the United States risks losing “the forgotten war.”

Gen. David H. Petraeus, who executed the successful U.S. security turnaround in Iraq two years ago, is the latest senior military leader to say the war in Afghanistan won’t be won militarily.

“One of the concepts we embraced in Iraq was recognition that you can’t kill or capture your way out of a complex, industrial-strength insurgency,” Gen. Petraeus said in an interview this month with Foreign Policy magazine. “The challenge in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq, is to figure out how to reduce substantially the numbers of those who have to be killed or captured.”

Gen. Petraeus, who heads the U.S. Central Command, is completing a broad review of his entire region of responsibility, which includes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Adm. Mullen’s staff is also doing an Afghanistan study.

Gen. Petraeus favors deeper outreach to former enemies and has hinted he would like Iran’s help in Afghanistan. The latitude he gets for that effort will be an early clue to the breadth of Mr. Obama’s planned policy changes.

“They have very much signaled that their approach to dealing with the growing instability is to dramatically increase our resources,” said J. Alexander Thier, an Afghanistan analyst at the U.S. Institute for Peace who worked with Gen. Jones on last year’s study.

Mr. Obama has hired a special troubleshooter for Afghanistan and Pakistan whose background is heavy on development and diplomacy. The announcement came at the State Department, the first agency Mr. Obama visited outside the White House, with nary a military uniform in sight.

“This is a very difficult assignment, as we all know,” envoy Richard Holbrooke said. “Nobody can say the war in Afghanistan has gone well.”

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