February 3, 2009, Washington, DC – A classified Pentagon report urges President Barack Obama to shift U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, de-emphasizing democracy-building and concentrating more on targeting Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries inside Pakistan with the aid of Pakistani military forces.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has seen the report prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it has not yet been presented to the White House, officials said Tuesday. The recommendations are one element of a broad policy reassessment under way along with recommendations to be considered by the White House from the commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, and other military leaders.
In an interview with NBC News’ Brian Williams on Tuesday Obama didn’t specifically comment on the report but said it was “encouraging” that there is now a “convergence between myself and the joint chiefs and my national security team about what we have to do” on a variety of national security questions, including Afghanistan.
There is a shared view among the joint chiefs, Obama said, that “Afghanistan is getting worse, not getting better.”
“We have to have a comprehensive strategy that not only deals with the military side but also the diplomacy,” Obama said, “how are we doing development, how do we make sure that the Afghan people have a stake in change in that country which they don’t have right now.”
A senior defense official said Tuesday that it will likely take several weeks before the Obama administration rolls out its long-term strategy for Afghanistan.
More than U.S. can handle?
The Joint Chiefs’ plan reflects growing worries that the U.S. military was taking on more than it could handle in Afghanistan by pursuing the Bush administration’s broad goal of nurturing a thriving democratic government.
Instead, the plan calls for a more narrowly focused effort to root out militant strongholds along the Pakistani border and inside the neighboring country, according to officials who confirmed the essence of the report. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the plan publicly.
The recommendations are broadly cast and provide limited detail, meant to help develop the overarching strategy for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region rather than propose a detailed military action plan.
During a press conference Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs noted ongoing reviews of Afghan policy, but did not say when they would be made public. Obama intends, he said, to “evaluate the current direction of our policy and make some corrections as he goes forward.”
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman would not comment Tuesday on the details of the Joint Chiefs’ report, but acknowledged that the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is a critical component for success in Afghanistan.
“When you talk about Afghanistan, you can’t help but also recognize the fact that the border region with Pakistan is obviously a contributing factor to the stability and security of Afghanistan, and the work that Pakistan is doing to try to reduce and eliminate those safe havens, and the ability for people to move across that border that are engaged in hostile intentions,” Whitman said.
Working with Pakistan
Part of the recommended approach is to search for ways to work more intensively and effectively with the Pakistanis to root out extremist elements in the border area, the senior defense official said.
The heightened emphasis on Pakistan reflects a realization that the root of the problem lies in the militant havens inside its border – a concern outlined last week to Congress in grim testimony by Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.
‘Art of the possible’
“The bottom line is we have to look at what the art of the possible is there,” said a U.S. military official who has operated in Afghanistan. The official, who has not seen the Joint Chiefs’ report, said the challenge is to craft a strategy that achieves U.S. goals of stabilizing the region and constraining al-Qaida, but also takes into account the powerful tribes that resist a strong central government and the ties among ethnic Pashtuns on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The Joint Chiefs’ report advises a greater emphasis on U.S. military training of Pakistani forces for counter-terror work.
Pakistan’s government is well aware of growing U.S. interest in collaborating to improve its military’s muscle against al-Qaida and Taliban elements in the border areas. The topic has been broached repeatedly by senior U.S. officials, including Mullen.
The training efforts also would expand and develop the Afghan army and police force, while at the same time work to improve Afghan governance.
The report also stresses that Afghan strategy must be driven by what the Afghans want, and that the U.S. cannot impose its own goals on the Afghanistan government.
During discussions about a new Afghanistan strategy, military leaders expressed worries that the U.S. ambitions in Afghanistan – to stabilize the country and begin to build a democracy there – were beyond its ability.
And as they tried to balance military demands in both Iraq and Afghanistan, some increasingly questioned why the U.S. continued to maintain a war-fighting force in Iraq, even though the mission there has shifted to a more support role. Those fighting forces, they argued, were needed more urgently in Afghanistan.
Military leaders have been signaling for weeks that the focus of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan would change.
Gates wants focus on terrorists
Gates told armed services committees in Congress last week that the U.S. should keep its sights on one thing: preventing Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists who would harm the U.S. or its allies. He bluntly added that the military could not root out terrorists while also propping up Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.
“Afghanistan is the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Gates said, a mythology reference to heaven.
Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that he was briefed last week on the military’s proposed new Afghan strategy, which he called evolving but headed in the right direction.
“There will be no Anbar awakening,” McCain, R-Ariz., told The Associated Press, referring to the tribal uprising against al-Qaida in Iraq’s Anbar province that triggered a turnaround in that conflict. “It will be long, hard and difficult.”
The Joint Chiefs report’s overall conclusions were first reported Saturday by The Associated Press. Politico reported additional details of the report Tuesday.
The U.S. is considering doubling its troop presence in Afghanistan this year to roughly 60,000, in response to growing strength by the Islamic militant Taliban, fed by safe havens they and al-Qaida have developed in an increasingly unstable Pakistan.
Obama is expected to announce soon his decision on a request for additional forces from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan. Several officials said they believe the president will approve sending three additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, totaling roughly 14,000 troops.