Barack Obama pointed to modest signs of improvement in Afghanistan to justify his decision to send tens of thousands of U.S. troops to prop up a shaky and corrupt Kabul government while fighting an Islamic insurgency.
"The gains we've made are still fragile and reversible, but there is no question we are clearing more areas from Taliban control," the President said on Thursday, unveiling an unclassified summary of the much-anticipated progress report on the war that may determine his legacy.
The President stressed how limited and modest his war aims are. Winning in Afghanistan, he said, means finding a way out while leaving behind a state capable of surviving without collapsing into chaos or again serving as the launch pad for terrorist strikes against America.
In defining what victory will look like, the President said his exit strategy – a still vague promise to begin bringing some troops home next summer – was still on track. "Our core goal … [is] not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan … and it's not nation-building, because it is Afghans who must build their nation. Rather, we are focused on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and preventing its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future," Mr. Obama said.
But the long-awaited and unsurprising report said little about overarching strategy. Rather it said that the tactics – flooding troops into the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, notably Kandahar and Helmand provinces where for years too few Canadian and British troops struggled to wage a successful counterinsurgency – are finally working.
Left unsaid was whether the 2014 handover date is realistic. By that time, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's regime in Kabul is expected to have earned the confidence of a war-ravaged people, built an army capable of crushing internal threats, including the Taliban, cleansed itself of the corruption that undermines its legitimacy and started to create an economy that is not based on the global export of opium.
For all the upbeat, albeit carefully hedged, claims of progress, the President warned Americans not to expect an early, or easy, departure.
"This continues to be a very difficult endeavour," he said. Still, doubts remain about the feasibility of achieving even the modest war objectives set out by the President.
Pakistan, mentioned only in passing, has emerged as the pivotal front in what amounts to an Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict zone. While the President has sent tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan, a secretive parallel war is being fought across the border in Pakistan. There, missile-firing U.S. drones flown by the CIA are engaged in a hunt-to-kill operation targeting and assassinating scores of al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists. However, without a matching campaign by Pakistani ground forces, the safe havens that spawn radical jihadists and allow others to train, equip and regroup will remain. "Progress has not come fast enough," Mr. Obama said of his so-far failed effort to persuade Islamabad that it is vital to Pakistan's security to crush the extremists. "We will continue to insist to Pakistani leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders must be dealt with."
In Kabul, the view is harsher. "No matter how many Taliban commanders the Americans kill, they can send more," said Haroun Mir, a political analyst in Kabul. "The problem is Pakistan, where the Taliban can launch thousands of new ones back into Afghanistan in a matter of weeks."
Ever since Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders fled in the fall of 2001, the White House has claimed the leadership of Islamic group is isolated and under threat. Former president George W. Bush mocked them as cave-dwellers. "Today," Mr. Obama said, "al-Qaeda's senior leadership in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan is under more pressure than at any point since they fled Afghanistan nine years ago. Senior leaders have been killed. It's harder for them to recruit; it's harder for them to travel; it's harder for them to train; it's harder for them to plot and launch attacks. In short, al-Qaeda is hunkered down."
But it also remains true that al-Qaeda continues to launch significant attacks – albeit often thwarted – and it is impossible to measure whether the pressure on the group has enhanced or undermined its international reputation and recruiting capacity as a global jihadist organization.
Karzai and Afghanistan's opium-based economy
It's an open secret that relations between the Obama administration and the unpredictable Mr. Karzai are strained. Mr. Obama may insist that nation-building isn't America's goal in Afghanistan. However, without a transformation from a narco-state largely ruled by local warlords into a civil society – even an undemocratic one – with the capacity to control the hinterlands with a professional army and a respected police force, there is no exit strategy. An army with hundreds of thousands of well-armed, well-paid troops won't secure Afghanistan from corruption and criminality if power stems from control of the planet's prime source of opium.
"Tactical success doesn't have any impact if you have strategic failure," said Thomas Hammes, a retired U.S. Marine colonel and senior fellow at the National Defense University. "What do we think is going to change at the strategic level between now and 2014 that will translate tactical success [into] some kind of strategic success?" He said in an interview on National Public Radio. "Will Pakistan change in a major way by 2014? Will the Karzai government change the way it operates by 2014?"
With a report from Susan Sachs in Kabul