"I'm more optimistic than I've ever been about Afghanistan, but because so much time has passed and the allies and Afghan people are getting so weary of this war, the window for succeeding is getting constantly narrower and the stakes and risks of failure are rising," said a senior defense official familiar with the review. The need to start transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces as soon as early next year in some areas, as outlined in the review, makes their learning curve that much steeper. "That just adds to the risk of what is already a risky strategy," the official said.
As the review reflects, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan, which now includes about 100,000 U.S. combat troops, has almost certainly achieved enough tactical progress in the country to buy himself political breathing room in Washington until a "conditions-based" drawdown begins next July. With a surge of 80,000 additional allied forces in the past two years, and a tripling of deployed U.S. civilians, the review reflects Petraeus's belief that the "counterinsurgency math" finally adds up. ISAF under his command has arrested the momentum of Taliban insurgents in many parts of the country, according to the review, and reversed it in key strongholds such as Helmand and Kandahar Provinces in the south. Perhaps most hopefully, Afghan security forces have made significant strides--exceeding their recruitment goals, improving training, and contributing significantly to recent operations in the south.
Without specifically mentioning the Obama administration's dramatic increase in unmanned "drone" strikes in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt, the review claims that al-Qaida's core leadership in the region is "weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001," with its ranks significantly depleted and its ability to plot attacks disrupted. The review likewise touts groundwork laid for a true "strategic partnership" with Pakistan, noting that Pakistani security forces have taken action in six out of seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas near the border.
Read beneath the surface of the review, however, and the overriding challenge for the Obama administration is clear. The passage of time has largely bled the Afghan war of its margins of error. Indeed, if this review were released in 2005 instead of five years later, its description of tactical gains on the ground in Afghanistan and the careful groundwork laid for improving U.S.-Pakistan cooperation might constitute a good news story. As it is, the review highlights a high-risk enterprise whose two strategic imperatives--eliminating insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan and helping build viable and sustainable institutions of Afghan governance--remain largely unmet.