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Despite bloodshed, US to cite Afghanistan progress

A White House review of President Barack Obama's Afghanistan war strategy being released today will report that foreign forces are making headway against the Taliban but that hefty challenges remain. The review, which the administration has indicated will not result in major strategy changes, is expected to cite hurdles including the need to strengthen Afghan governance and goading Pakistan to eliminate insurgent safe havens.

world Updated: Dec 16, 2010 10:54 IST

A White House review of President Barack Obama's Afghanistan war strategy being released on Thursday will report that foreign forces are making headway against the Taliban but that hefty challenges remain.

The review, which the administration has indicated will not result in major strategy changes, is expected to cite hurdles including the need to strengthen Afghan governance and goading Pakistan to eliminate insurgent safe havens.

In what could be a preview of the report, Obama, who is aiming to demonstrate enough progress to start bringing troops home next year, told lawmakers on Wednesday his war strategy was yielding gradual progress and U.S.-led forces would stick with his approach.

Despite the cautious optimism from military commanders a year after he ordered an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Obama must overcome skepticism on Capitol Hill and among Americans tired of the long, expensive conflict.

Casualties have reached a record high this year as the Taliban insurgency expands.

"There have been isolated security successes, but there's no overarching progress," said Caroline Wadhams, an expert on South Asia at the Center for American Progress. "All the dynamics that are enabling the insurgency remain."

A U.S. and NATO force of 150,000 troops, including 100,000 Americans, has pushed back the Taliban in cities like Kandahar, an encouraging sign as allied troops hope to start putting Afghan soldiers in the lead on security. Officials say that overall, the insurgency's momentum has been halted.

But in the absence of major strides by Afghan forces, who are growing rapidly in numbers but still learning to shoot and, in many cases, to read, those gains "cannot be maintained without continued U.S. involvement, both military and financial," Wadhams said.

It has been the bloodiest year since Western forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, with almost 700 foreign troops killed in 2010. Afghan civilians bear the biggest brunt of the conflict as insurgents expand from traditional strongholds into once peaceful areas in the north and west.

The war in Afghanistan, which now costs at least $113 billion a year, is a fiscal drain as Obama struggles to revive the U.S. economy and create jobs. He appears set on beginning to withdraw U.S. forces next July.

MORE COOPERATION SOUGHT FROM PAKISTAN

While the troop increase is bearing fruit in some areas, the picture is more troubling overall.

In some areas, Taliban intimidation has brought local government to a halt. Western suspicions that President Hamid Karzai has failed to crack down on corrupt officials have helped widen a rift with the Afghan leader. After nine years of aid efforts, poverty and illiteracy remain widespread.

Obama's strategy overhaul a year ago included a "civilian surge" of aid workers, diplomats and other experts sent to Afghanistan.

But Andrew Exum, a scholar at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank close to the White House, said even more needed to be done to ensure weak governance did not undermine the gains made on security.

"If governance is one of our Achilles' heels, we have to weight our resources there," he said.

The White House review is expected to note that more cooperation is needed from Pakistan, which the United States is pressuring to go after militants operating in border areas.

The New York Times reported this week that two recent classified intelligence reports said the Afghanistan strategy had little chance of success unless Pakistan prevented insurgents from launching attacks from border sanctuaries.

The war has become a source of tension between Obama and some fellow Democrats who see little chance of quick success. It threatens to become more of a political liability for Obama next spring, when Taliban fighters could pick up attacks after a winter lull.

"I think there's a willingness to allow the strategy some more time, but in the spring we may see some more crucial decisions being made," said Lisa Curtis, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation.