Obama Administration Officials: Af-Pak Plan Proceeding, Battle for Kandahar City Next

By MichaelJames

Feb 26, 2010 8:25pm

ABC News' Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report:

Senior administration officials briefed reporters today on the pending battle for Kandahar City and the larger strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which they described as progressing well.

The recent military activity in Marja “is the tactical prelude to larger, more comprehensive operations later this year in Kandahar City,” one official said. “It’s strategically important because Kandahar City is the home base, capital city, if you will, of the Taliban movement.”

The Taliban were founded in and around the city, the sources said, and before 9/11, the city was Mullah Omar’s home base.

“It’s their fountainhead, if you will,” the source said, “their center of gravity.”

The sources described developments both pending and recent in the region as the result of President Obama’s new strategy for Af-Pak, as announced at West Point.

“We’re not even 90 days beyond the West Point speech on Dec. 1,” a senior administration official said. “That speech for us was really a mile marker because it transitioned us inside the administration from policy development … to policy implementation.”

In the previous nine months, the Obama administration has seen a “significant strategic shift” in Pakistan, the officials said: “the decision by the Pakistani security forces to take the fight to the Pakistani Taliban.”

There has been more intelligence sharing and joint activities; of course, it hasn’t all been karahi and kheer.

“This isn’t going to be easy,” an official said. “This is not going to be straight line progress. … Two steps forward, one step back is about what we ought to expect.”

In the past, the U.S. government has argued to the Pakistani government that the extremists in the region – the Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the TTP, or Pakistani Taliban) and al Qaeda — “are more like a syndicate, and it’s very difficult to separate and discriminate one piece from the network itself.”

Pakistani government officials haven’t always  agreed with that view, but right now there are two Pakistani army divisions holding the Swat Valley, including two divisions that came off the front lines with India and are now conducting a “classic counterinsurgency” in the Swat region.

How long this cooperative mindset will continue is unclear; the officials described the capture of Mullah Baradar as the result of some luck and a lot of hard work.

Either way, it’s working.

“There are fewer places to hide” in Fatah and the Af-Pak border, an official said. “A number of key commanders and leaders [of the Taliban] have been taken off of the battlefield over the last several months. The trend line is strong. It’s positive.”

But the U.S. will need to continue its outreach.

“Pakistan is in tough straits and we are reaching out to them on multiple fronts,” the official said. "We have recently made progress in reinitiating a prolonged, deliberate, strategic dialogue, bilateral dialogue.”

The dialogue has taken place since last fall and has continued with a series of senior American engagements in Islamabad.

“And we anticipate in the next 30 days or so it will feature a strategic dialogue event here hosted by Secretary of State” Hillary Clinton.  No date has been announced yet.

The goal for Afghanistan this year is to degrade the Taliban and reverse its momentum over the last couple years. In this first 90 days, the U.S. is still bringing resources to bear and the Afghan security forces have increased their numbers.

The strategy, as we know, is: clear, hold, build, transfer. In Marja, allied forces are well into the first phase, but it is not yet complete.

“We don’t have adequate security yet in all of the districts in and around Marja,” an official said. There is “reasonable” security in the town center itself, “but there are pockets of resistance on the outside. So we are somewhere between clear and hold and that’s pretty much on track.”

The building process will be the most challenging, the officials said, because it means “bringing governance into a place where the Taliban used to govern, and that’s going to be tough because they, from the outset, enjoyed the trust and the confidence of the people, the local people. They are suspicious and we have to win that trust and win that confidence before they are willing to side with the Afghan government. And that’s really the  contest.”

“So it’s not so much a matter of the physical contest of who controls the weapons and all that. It’s a question of who controls the confidence of the people … and that will only come after we’re able to deliver.”

President Obama gets a weekly, lengthy, comprehensive written assessment of how things are going in the theater. On a monthly basis, he meets by way of video conference with military and civilian leaders in the field and hears firsthand from them what he gets via the written reports.

Quarterly, there is a “bottom to top” review against a set of metrics and measure how they are doing.

Annually – in December, this year – they will do another major comprehensive review. The president will ask the question, “Is the approach taking hold and working?”

- Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller

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