WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An independent task force cautioned President Barack Obama on Friday about the high cost of the Afghanistan war and said he should consider a narrow military mission if his December review finds the current strategy is not working.
The 25-member task force, led by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former national security adviser Samuel Berger, said it saw “hopeful signs” in Afghanistan, such as improved training of security forces, but other trends were less encouraging.
“The cloudy picture and high costs raise the question of whether the United States should now downsize its ambitions and reduce its military presence in Afghanistan,” the task force said in a 98-page report.
“We are mindful of the real threat we face,” said the task force, which was sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “But we are also aware of the costs of the present strategy. We cannot accept these costs unless the strategy begins to show signs of progress.”
Dan Markey, a South Asia analyst at the council who was project director for the report, said the findings were a “sober reflection of a Washington consensus that is increasingly skeptical and concerned” about the war.
The task force endorsed Obama’s efforts to deepen cooperation with Pakistan and called for improved trading ties. It also pressed the administration to send Pakistan a clear message about severing ties to Islamist extremist groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Armitage, speaking at the launch of the report, said it was in Islamabad’s interest to distance itself from the groups because another Mumbai-style attack linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba could trigger war between India and Pakistan.
“If we can’t be successful in either jawboning, pressuring or stick-and-carroting them into this, then in the long run we’re dealing with a very dangerous situation,” he said.
The task force was composed of a broad range of former government officials, military leaders, academics and journalists with expertise in the region. The report was not requested by the Obama administration but the task force did speak to officials involved with the issue.
The group gave a qualified endorsement to Obama’s current strategy, an ambitious counterinsurgency-style effort, but only if it is clearly making progress.
“If the December 2010 review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan concludes that the present strategy is not working, the task force recommends that a shift to a more limited mission at a substantially reduced level of military force would be warranted,” the report said.
Some task force members issued dissenting opinions that went further. Robert Grenier, a former longtime CIA agent with experience in the region, said the current strategy is not working and needs an army too costly for Afghans to sustain.
“The U.S. effort ... cannot continue on at this level of material and human resources,” he said. “It’s very clear that the current approach is not going to be able to succeed on the timeline that we’ve given it. I think that we’ve seen enough and that we need to shift, in essence, to plan B.”
Grenier said he favored a long-term effort to gradually build a small Afghan army and mentor local militias accountable to local leaders. Those forces could counter the Taliban and be used as a platform for counterterror operations, he said.
The administration’s current strategy calls for U.S.-led forces, including nearly 100,000 American troops, to disrupt al Qaeda and its Taliban allies while training Afghan military and police to take over security.
At the same time, foreign civilians are working to help improve Afghan governance in an effort to broaden popular support for the administration.
As the December review approaches, it is clear defense officials believe the war plan is working but needs more time, despite rising casualties and worsening violence.
Administration officials have begun to play down Obama’s July 2011 deadline for beginning to hand over security to Afghan forces and withdraw U.S. troops as conditions merit.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week they viewed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s plan to assume full responsibility for the country’s security by 2014 as a realistic goal NATO should endorse at its summit this month.
Administration officials have indicated the strategy review is likely to bring only tweaks rather than a wholesale reappraisal of the war effort.
Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott