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U.S. Afghan Review Says Forces Can Begin Withdrawal In July

  • RFE/RL

U.S. Marines patrol the market in the town of Musa Qala in the southern Helmand Province.

U.S. Marines patrol the market in the town of Musa Qala in the southern Helmand Province.

The Obama administration's latest review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan concludes that American forces can begin withdrawing on schedule in July 2011, however, it does not forecast how many troops will leave next year.

At the unveiling of the White House's Afghanistan Strategy Review, President Barack Obama said the U.S. goal is "not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan.[and] it's not nation-building," but rather, to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In that pursuit, Obama said, "We are on track to achieve our goals."

"Today, 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," Obama expained. "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."

The report says "specific components" of the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan are working well and "there are notable operational gains." It also says that "Al-Qaeda's senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001."

The war is now in its 10th year. This review was promised one year ago, when Obama announced that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to the theater with the goal of stabilizing the security situation enough to begin to hand over responsibility to the Afghans and allow troops to being coming home next summer.

There are now roughly 100,000 U.S. and 40,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan.

The assessment says, based on the progress made so far, that Obama's goal of starting a drawdown of the American contingent is still on schedule, but it suggests that the decision to begin the pullback will be "conditions-based," that is -- as the White House has previously said -- determined by conditions on the ground.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated that the exact date and speed of troop removal will be "conditions based."

"In terms of what that line looks like beyond July 2011, I think the answer is, we don't know at this point," Gates said. "But the hope is that as we progress, that those drawdowns will be able to accelerate."

Future Challenges

At the NATO leaders' summit in Lisbon last month, allies agreed a date of 2014 to complete the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans. That means U.S. forces will be in the country another four years, at least.

Obama also said the United States would continue to back Kabul's nascent efforts to reach out to the Taliban in peace talks and reconciliation efforts.

The summary praises cooperation with Pakistan, saying that Washington and Islamabad "worked jointly in the last year to disrupt the threat posed by al-Qaeda, and Pakistan has made progress against extremist safe havens."

But it also says that "the challenge remains to make our gains durable and sustainable" if the United States is to achieve its ultimate goal: the defeat of Al-Qaeda.

That defeat, the summary notes, will require not only sustained operations in Afghanistan but "the sustained denial of the group's safe haven in the tribal areas of western Pakistan."

The report says greater cooperation is needed with Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan, and notes that the denial of extremist safe havens "cannot be achieved through military means alone, but must continue to be advanced by effective development strategies."

Obama said the U.S. will continue "to help strengthen Pakistan's capacity to root out terrorists."

"Nevertheless," he noted, "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 review, complied from data supplied by agencies across the U.S. government, comes at the end of the bloodiest year so far of the war, with some 700 NATO troops -- at least 475 of them American -- killed in battles with the Taliban.

written by Charles Recknagel
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