- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Obama administration will identify Pakistan’s continuing support for terrorist havens and the absence of good governance in Afghanistan as key factors that are undermining U.S. and coalition efforts in Afghanistan.

The White House will make public its review of Afghan strategy on Thursday.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said this week the review will focus on strengthening capacity inside Afghanistan and the “ongoing challenge and threat of safe havens in Pakistan.”

The review will conclude that the U.S. has made enough progress in halting the momentum of the Taliban to allow President Obama to keep his promise of commencing troop withdrawal in July 2011.

“We have seen, through counterterrorism, success at degrading senior al Qaeda leaders,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Coalition forces hope to hand over control to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.

U.S. officials and analysts say the review will provide no surprises.

U.S. and Afghan officials are frustrated at Pakistan’s reluctance to give up its support for militant groups.

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the matter, said it is no secret that Pakistan continues to support terrorist groups, including the Afghan Taliban, members of al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network.

Mr. Gibbs said there is “absolutely no doubt” that terrorist havens inside Pakistan make security and progress in Afghanistan more challenging.

Pakistan’s calculus has not changed throughout the last nine years, and until that does, we are not going to see any progress,” said Jeffrey Dressler, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

Pakistan’s lawless tribal provinces, along the border with Afghanistan, serve as havens for the militants. Several top terrorists have been killed in unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, strikes in this region over the past year.

On a visit to Pakistan this week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed what he described as “strategic impatience” with Islamabad’s inability to sever links to the militants.

Meanwhile, Army Maj. Gen. John Campbell, commander of coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan, predicted heavier fighting in eastern Afghanistan this winter, according to an Associated Press report.

Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute, said there have been “considerable changes” on the ground in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south and east, where the coalition forces have stepped up their offensive.

With coalition forces stepping up their effort in parts of Afghanistan, Mr. Dressler said, the Taliban are reluctant to return to their sanctuaries across the border because they are worried the coalition will gain the upper hand in their absence.

“The Taliban want to maintain a constant presence, because they are unsure what the situation will be like if they were to leave and then return,” Mr. Dressler said, adding that the Taliban’s reluctance to return to their sanctuaries is not a sign of a shift in Pakistan’s strategy.

An Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said if Pakistan had abandoned its strategy of supporting militant groups in order to maintain influence in Afghanistan, there would have been a “dramatic drop” in violence.

“There is enough evidence indicating that unless Pakistan gives up support for terrorists, it will be hard to defeat these groups,” the Afghan official added.

Following a visit to Afghanistan last week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said troops in eastern Afghanistan are engaged in “a disruption activity and a blocking activity to stop the Taliban who are coming across the border from making it to Jalalabad and to Kabul.”

The absence of good governance in Afghanistan rivals the havens as a top concern for the U.S. and its coalition partners.

“In the eyes of Afghans, whether or not they see their government as legitimate is really key. We have to pay close attention to that,” Mr. Dressler said. “Gains on governance and corruption will be an iterative process.”

The Afghan official said criticism of Afghan President Hamid Karzai would be unhelpful. The international community should focus on “a more constructive path,” he said.

“The U.S. and the international community have not done enough to build the rule of law in Afghanistan. They have paid far more attention to security, and this has come at the cost of good governance,” the Afghan official said.

An assessment from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Wednesday underscored the fragile state of security in Afghanistan.

ICRC said a proliferation of armed groups has made it difficult for humanitarian-aid groups to help people in need. It predicted that Afghans would continue to face conflict-related challenges in 2011.

“In a growing number of areas in the country, we are entering a new, rather murky phase in the conflict, in which the proliferation of armed groups threatens the ability of humanitarian organizations to reach the people who need their help,” said Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan.

“One armed group may demand food and shelter in the evening; then, the next morning, another may demand to know why its enemy was given sanctuary,” he added.

The ICRC said civilian casualties in the conflict have increased in comparison with previous years.

The release of the review comes on the heels of the death of Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. Holbrooke played a key role in shaping U.S. policy in the region.

However, analysts don’t expect a major shift in that policy.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters this week that it was too early to tell what changes will be made. But “obviously there will be a change in personal approach. And that is inevitable,” Mr. Crowley added.

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