WASHINGTON/KABUL - A long-awaited review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan due on Thursday will report some progress despite the bloodiest year in nine years of war and signal no major change in President Barack Obama's plans.
The review of the revised strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Obama unveiled a year ago, comes amid mounting concern about rampant corruption in Afghanistan and worries in Congress and among allies about how much more blood and treasure it will take to finally defeat the Taliban.
U.S. officials are downplaying the review, which assesses the impact of Obama's build-up of forces in the last year meant to create conditions for Afghan security forces to gradually take over and let U.S. troops start coming home in July 2011.
NATO and U.S. forces, bolstered by 30,000 extra American troops this year, has clashed with Taliban militants this year, seeking to drive insurgents out of Afghan cities and racing race to build up nascent local army and police forces.
In a visit to Afghanistan last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said allied troops had come a long way since Obama rolled out his new strategy a year ago. "Progress even just in the last few months has exceeded my expectations," Gates said.
But even reports of modest progress might surprise many in Afghanistan, where a recent U.S. military report found an expanding, tenacious insurgency, entrenched corruption and dysfunctional governance despite some pockets of security.
Almost 700 foreign troops have been killed in 2010, at least 477 of them Americans.
"What's going to happen next year is quite clear: less Europeans, more Taliban, and Karzai not being able to do the work," said Gilles Dorronsoro, a critic of the U.S. strategy and scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
WAR AND BOMBARDMENT
Abdul Sattar, a construction worker in Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold at the heart of U.S. and NATO efforts this year, like other Afghans expected the arrival of foreign forces in 2001, on the heels of the September 11 attacks, to bring peace after years of civil conflict and repressive Taliban rule.
"On the contrary -- we have been witnessing war, violence, suicide attacks and bombardment," he said.
On Sunday, a suicide car bomber killed six U.S. troops and two Afghan soldiers in southern Afghanistan, the latest attack that demonstrates continued vulnerability despite a buildup to almost 150,000 foreign soldiers.
Such attacks add to pressure on the Obama administration and its allies to find a way to exit Afghanistan and to leave behind a modicum of stability when they go.
Under such pressure -- and with a current annual cost to U.S. taxpayers of at least $113 billion a year in mind -- the White House is not expected to swerve from its promise to begin drawing down in mid-2011 and putting Afghans in the lead.
This week's review will be watched carefully in Congress, where members of Obama's own Democratic Party are growing restless about the war, and in Europe, where public anger has prompted a growing cast of NATO partners to signal their exit.
Perhaps in an effort to hold onto European support, the Obama administration, according to one Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity, had "gotten better" at consulting allies on Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in a recent letter to Obama, suggested changes to U.S. strategy, including more protection of civilians, his spokesman in Kabul said. Karzai's goal of putting local forces in charge of security by the end of 2014 has been endorsed by NATO.
But a growing number of U.S. officials see Karzai, whose international support has waned since he won another term in a suspect election last year, as a chief part of the problem.
A cache of secret U.S. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks may have increased the distance with Karzai, seen in Washington as failing to crack down on corrupt officials.
Governance is weak across the country and the Taliban has cowed many local officials into virtual inactivity. In many areas in the south and east "shadow" governments operate, extracting taxes and carrying out "official" functions like trials and determining land and marriage disputes.
"The great problem we face here is that (the United States) can succeed in Afghanistan but the Afghan government can still fail, and we can have no influence over Pakistan, the strategic center of this war," said Anthony Cordesman, a security expert at the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies.
More and more, the West sees neighboring Pakistan as the linchpin to its success in Afghanistan. But the last year has shown the limits of U.S. leverage over Islamabad as Washington presses it to go after militants based inside its borders.
Pakistan continues to identify its chief foreign policy concern not in Afghanistan but in India, a strong U.S. ally Pakistan accuses of meddling.
"We are saying (to the United States): we are here to help you but you also (must) take care of our interests," a senior security official in Pakistan said on condition of anonymity
Complicating the relationship further, the United States has dramatically increased its use of missile-carrying, unmanned drones to go after militants in Pakistan's lawless northwest. Such drone attacks have long angered Islamabad.
(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Islamabad, Mohammed Abbas in London and Ismail Sameem in Kandahar; editing by Paul Tait and David Storey)