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Pentagon Ignores Gloomy War View

Afghan assessment: Report due Thursday

Amanda Hodge

U.S. Marines watch a helicopter send out flares as it leaves Musa Qala in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. (Massoud Hossaini, AFP/Getty Images / December 15, 2010)

Barack Obama is expected to claim solid progress in the war in Afghanistan tonight.

The review will contradict far gloomier findings by his own intelligence agencies that the war cannot be won while Pakistan refuses to close militant safe havens.

The review is tipped to reaffirm a US-troop drawdown from July next year with a final handover to Afghan security forces in 2014 - a plan endorsed last month by NATO to allow coalition forces sufficient time to improve local military and law enforcement capacity.

The US President signed off on a final draft of the assessment yesterday at a meeting with top national security advisers on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said after the meeting that the review "will show that our transition can and should begin . . . in July 2011", which is Mr Obama's promised start date for a drawdown of 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan.

"There has been some important progress in halting the momentum of the Taliban in Afghanistan," Mr Gibbs said.

"We have seen, through counter-terrorism, success at degrading senior al-Qa'ida leaders and we've seen greater co-operation over the course of the past 18 months with the Pakistani government."

The US military has dramatically stepped up air strikes and manhunts against Taliban militants this year, resulting in the highest number of US troop casualties recorded in the nine-year war.

Asked whether US strategy was in better shape than before the surge strategy was announced last December, Mr Gibbs replied: "I don't think there is any doubt."

The assessment, the last major review before the July drawdown, concludes coalition forces have made significant headway in traditional Taliban strongholds in the south, where the majority of the 30,000 additional US troops deployed in the past year have been concentrated.

It will point to a 66 per cent fall in civilian casualties this year and the fact that 70 per cent of insurgent attacks are now "ineffective".

However, the findings contrast with those of the most recent National Intelligence Estimates reports, which warn that large swathes of Afghanistan are at risk of falling to the Taliban.

The latest NIE report, a consensus view of America's 16 intelligence agencies, concludes that the US cannot succeed in Afghanistan while Pakistan remains unwilling or unable to shut down militant safe havens in its territory or end covert support for the Afghan Taliban.

The contradiction has set the US intelligence community on a collision course with the Pentagon, which was working overtime yesterday to discredit the NIE report as "dated" because the quarterly snapshot reviewed progress only to September, just as the last of the additional 30,000 troops were arriving.

"You are missing at least 2 1/2 months of intensive operations with the full complement of surge forces," a defence official was quoted in The New York Times as saying, adding that intelligence analysts lacked the "proximity and perspective" of military forces on the ground.

But intelligence officials said that argument was "preposterous" given their officers were "on the ground in Afghanistan and on the frontlines in the fight against terrorism".

The CIA's Kabul station is its largest offshore operation since Vietnam and its operatives command a thousands-strong Afghan paramilitary force. In Pakistan, the CIA's drone campaign against militants in the tribal border regions is an open secret.

What the competing reviews do agree on is that the CIA's escalated drone campaign in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas is affecting the bases of al-Qa'ida and Taliban forces, despite the lack of support from Pakistan.

The top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, said last week Pakistan army chief Ashfaq Kayani had vowed to launch operations in North Waziristan.

But there is no timeframe. US military officials acknowledge that, despite $US2 billion ($2bn) in annual aid, there's no guarantee Pakistan will "address the sanctuary problem".

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