x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Leaks reveal US difference with Pakistan over support

Two classified intelligence reports conclude that chances of success for the US and its allies are limited unless Pakistan takes a much more active role at its border.

The public stand is the US forces are making progress faster than expectations.
The public stand is the US forces are making progress faster than expectations.

WASHINGTON //As Barack Obama, the US president, prepares to release a review of American military strategy in Afghanistan, two classified intelligence reports on the situation there and in Pakistan conclude that chances of success for the US and its international allies are limited unless Pakistan takes a much more active role at its border with Afghanistan.

The intelligence assessments - the findings of which were leaked to the US media yesterday - would seem to contradict what will probably be the administration's official review, which is expected to cite progress in Afghanistan when it is made public today.

Analysts say the difference is over the extent to which the US can succeed in Afghanistan without significant Pakistani help. The US is about to extend a US$7.5 billion (Dh27.5b) civilian aid package to the country over the next three years, but relations with the country have been fragile over the past years, not least because of US drone strikes against targets in the west of the country.

And with former Pakistani leader, Pervez Musharraf warning yesterday from his self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates that extremism is on the rise in parts of Pakistan with Mujahideen groups gaining more public support, the strength of US relations with Pakistan are certain to be tested even further.

The passing on Monday of Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who had developed strong ties with Pakistani leaders, also leaves a vacuum that the administration will be keen to fill.

Administration officials have said that the review will conclude that the US military surge in Afghanistan, which has formed the backbone of efforts to winding down operations by mid-2011, is beginning to show results. On Tuesday, Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said the review would find "important progress in halting the momentum of the Taliban in Afghanistan."

That also seems to be the opinion of the US military. On Saturday, Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, said he had been surprised by the pace of progress after a trip to Afghanistan last week.

"I think we have made more progress in Kandahar faster than I expected," Mr Gates told reporters on his way back on Saturday. "(We) have moved in that area much more rapidly than I had anticipated."

On the ground, however, the violence continues. On Saturday alone, 47 people were killed in incidents across Afghanistan, including 15 civilians in a roadside bomb attack in the southern part of the country and 25 suspected Taliban fighters in the east.

On Sunday, six Nato soldiers were killed, the highest death toll for international forces in a month. These incidents come amid continued concern over the ability, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq, of local security forces to secure both countries ahead of any US exit.

The seemingly unabated violence would seem to bear out the findings of two classified intelligence reports, called National Intelligence Estimates, which represent the consensus view of 16 US intelligence agencies.

While both reports and the military cite progress in the security situation in Afghanistan, the intelligence reports, one on Afghanistan and one on Pakistan, conclude that for as long as Afghan fighters have safe havens in Pakistan, US chances of successfully being able to hand over security in Afghanistan to local forces by 2014 were limited.

Military officials, while agreeing that the porous border is a problem for US military efforts, have criticised the report as not taking into account recent gains and said that the army is in a better position to evaluate.

But with the CIA undertaking its biggest operation since the Vietnam War in Kabul, analysts say the intelligence services have as much on-the-ground access as the military.

Nate Hughes, Director of Military Analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence company, said there was fundamental disagreement between the US intelligence community and the military establishment over Afghanistan. "The single largest point of disagreement [between the intelligence community and the military] is the significance of the problems that Pakistan presents for the US and Afghanistan and the weight that is given in the analysis."

The intelligence community, said Mr Hughes, was warning that "success is really not assured and we are not getting the cooperation from Pakistan that we need. The military is saying, 'we are making progress. We are pursuing a strategy we believe can ultimately succeed'. It's not just a question of emphasis, because it goes to the heart of whether what the US is trying to achieve is achievable."

Such success may best be measured in non-military terms, suggested Mr Hughes. The ability of the US to withdraw by 2014, after 13 years, far longer than US military involvement in Vietnam, will come down to the strength of the Afghan state and its ability to provide services and to govern.

The Taliban was able to come to power in Afghanistan partly because it demonstrated an ability to impose order that had been long lost in the chaos in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal. If, by 2014, the Afghan government can demonstrate a similar ability to govern, Afghans may not welcome the return of the Taliban.

That will take time, however, and all depends on the security situation on the ground.

"If things don't look like they have made much progress seven months from now, it's going to re-open the issue and the 2014 date may not look as secure as now," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department and now a scholar with the Middle East Institute.

For now, however, said Mr Weinbaum, the administration will look for more time to pursue its present policy.

"We've only had the full contingent of forces, civilian and military, in place for a couple of months, so the argument will be that we have to give it a chance."

okarmi@thenational.ae