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Quick Take: Afghan Policy Review

President Obama announced Thursday the release of the annual review of his Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy, calling it a “very difficult endeavor,” but saying the U.S. is “on track to achieve our goals.”

(Read the report below)

The president cited progress in combating al-Qaida: “It will take time to ultimately defeat al-Qaida, but make no mistake … we are going to remain relentless in disrupting and dismantling that terrorist organization.” And he said the administration would continue to press Pakistan to deal with terrorist safe havens within its borders.

The NewsHour spoke to some military experts for their take on the policy review. Here’s what they told us (edited for length):

Retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security:

“I think that this strategy review has reaffirmed the basic thrust of the direction we’re going both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think it correctly identifies the two critical vulnerabilities of our strategy. Those being Afghan governance, which is not proceeding as rapidly as we would like, and the sanctuaries in Pakistan, which are probably the single Achilles heel — the make or break point — of our entire strategy.

“I think that the review demonstrates correctly that we’ve made tactical progress, particularly in the south. That we’re making faster progress than we expected with developing the Afghan security forces. I’m very pleased about that and I think that that really matters.

“I think that the president’s commitment at Lisbon (at the NATO summit) to maintain U.S. assistance to Afghanistan in a lead combat role through 2014 and then an advisory and assistance role after 2014 is going to change the Pakistani calculus, and I think that that is the single-most important thing that can happen over the course of 2011.”

Retired Col. W. Patrick Lang, a military and intelligence specialist:

“I don’t really consider it to be a serious appraisal of how things are going. It’s an endorsement of their existing policy to get them through this until they get to next summer when they’ll have to make some decision as to whether or not to start withdrawing troops. This is not a serious discussion of whether or not the policy they adopted a year ago was a good policy. It’s a pro-forma revalidation of the policy, I would say.

“They said when they established the policy a year ago that they were going to have a review in December at the end of the year, so they had to do it, they had to publish something. General Petraeus does not intend to have anything happen that interferes with his attempts to make a counterinsurgency campaign plan work in Afghanistan, so this is merely a formality.”

Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations:

“The review is in some ways unsatisfying because it leaves so much open. But that’s unavoidable given the timetable here. We’re in the early phases of something that takes a long time to unfold.

“Counterinsurgency rests on the population’s expectations of the future, and the population’s expectations change gradually. (In addition,) fighting in Afghanistan is unusually seasonal. Guerillas will attempt to counterattack once they’ve been driven out, and the timing of that is such that they’re not going to do it in the winter when the trees are bare and they’re exposed. That won’t happen until the spring. So until we see their counterattack attempts, and we and they observe whether they succeed, there’s no way to know whether security gains in Kandahar and Helmand will persist through the summer.

“The other thing worth noting is that counterinsurgency is partly security and partly governance, and the review doesn’t say very much about governance. I think critical for an assessment of the campaign as it moves forward is to see whether or not we make progress against the problem of malign, predatory misgovernance by key actors in the Afghan government.”

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