WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A review ordered by President Barack Obama of the Afghanistan war a year after he overhauled the U.S. strategy will be made public next week.
The review, which is expected to reflect the administration view that U.S. and NATO forces are making some progress, is unlikely to bring any major changes to operations on the ground. Its exact release date has not been announced.
But it will set the scene for decisions about how quickly Washington will start bringing its troops home, which it has said it will begin to do in the middle of next year.
U.S. and NATO forces expect to begin handing over security control to Afghan forces in July 2011 and to complete that process by the end of 2014 as governments in Europe and the United States look for an end to a long, expensive war.
The review will also include an assessment of Western strategy on Pakistan, where U.S. officials are hoping to eliminate safe havens for Taliban and other militants.
Following are several scenarios on how the first half of 2011 could go for U.S. strategy in the war, launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda, whose leaders were operating from Afghanistan.
The United States has said it has halted the momentum of the Taliban in some parts of the country and is expanding pockets of security it has built in urban areas such as Kabul and southern Kandahar.
In the best of scenarios for the United States and its nearly 50 allies, the close to 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan would continue to expand secure zones, pushing the Taliban out of populated areas and allowing trade and government to resume in the absence of militant intimidation.
This year’s focus on reducing surging violence in southern Afghanistan, where Kandahar and Helmand provinces have long been a Taliban stronghold and the heart of the country’s lucrative drug crop, would begin to bear fruit.
Because a pillar of NATO strategy is establishing a more responsive, transparent government in one of the world’s poorest countries, in this scenario there would be at least some progress on reducing endemic corruption and ensuring more Afghans get basic services like health care and education.
Foreign troops would make headway in recruiting and training local forces, which now number about 268,000 and are to be ramped up to 306,000 by next October. New army and police would help establish security in towns and villages across Afghanistan and would discourage support for Taliban fighters.
The NATO-led alliance would remain robust. While Canada plans to end its military mission in Afghanistan in 2011, most of the United States’ partner nations would overcome opposition at home and put off withdrawal of their nearly 50,000 troops.
At home, Obama would allay concerns about spending, enjoying support from Republicans and keeping more liberal Democrats, many of whom are critical of the war, on board.
While the administration voices cautious optimism about the situation is isolated parts of Afghanistan, it has acknowledged that a tenacious insurgency is expanding across the country.
In this scenario, the Taliban would emerge as an even more deadly opponent in southern Afghanistan, forcing villagers to support their operations and cowing local government officials into virtual inactivity. Any progress that has been made in economic development and governance would be squandered.
Security would deteriorate further in the north and even the capital Kabul would be threatened.
In this scenario Washington would see little result from its pressure on Pakistan to go after militant groups, like the Haqqani network, operating from sanctuaries within Pakistan.
It will be more difficult to secure Afghanistan if corruption cannot be controlled, tipping some Afghans disgusted by widespread graft into supporting the militants.
In such a scenario, well-connected officials would be let off the hook for corruption; governance would remain weak overall; and the West will continue to drift farther from President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
Obama could also run into more serious opposition from members of his own party who oppose the continued campaign in Afghanistan, weakening the president as he struggles to create jobs and invigorate the struggling U.S. economy.
Perhaps the most likely scenario would fall somewhere in between these two extremes, making it more difficult to gauge whether the U.S. and NATO strategy is truly working.
In such a scenario there would be some progress made in certain areas of Afghanistan, most likely those with large troop concentrations.
But a porous border with Pakistan and the challenge of counter-insurgency would mean an uneven picture. Taliban could dig in across some areas and Afghan civilians would continue to pay the price.
As Western countries send more trainers for Afghan forces, the ranks of local police and army would swell and become more skilled. But corruption and high attrition rates would continue to undermine overall security.
The surge in Western civilian officials supporting Afghan reconstruction and growth would help in some areas, but aid efforts would be limited by poor security and after nine years of such work the results would be meager.
Additional reporting by David Alexander; editing by David Storey