MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
GUY RAZ, host:
And I'm Guy Raz.
Time now for the last installment in our series on Afghanistan. We've heard reports all week about the country's war-torn history, and how that informs current U.S. efforts there. Today, we focus on the latest White House strategy review for Afghanistan, due later this month.
Ahead of its release, NPR's Quil Lawrence looks at the major issues that will figure into that review, and what Afghans think about the way forward.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Afghanistan has become the signature foreign policy issue for President Barack Obama, even though the war started before Obama even entered national politics.
As president, Obama unveiled his goals to cadets at West Point, one year ago this week.
President BARACK OBAMA: We will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan: We must deny al-Qaida Qaida a safe haven; we must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government; and we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.
LAWRENCE: The president announced a surge to give the Afghan government time to step up to the task. Obama's original drawdown date of 2011 has now been explained as a gradual redeployment that will last until 2014.
There is little emphasis from the White House these days on building a democracy or women's rights, or of combating Afghanistan's leviathan illegal narcotics trade. The White House official policy, as leaked to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, says that: Given the profound problems of legitimacy and effectiveness with the Karzai government, we must focus on what is realistic.
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LAWRENCE: Last month, NATO held a one-year anniversary ceremony for the U.S.-led training mission in Afghanistan. For the first time, recruiting goals for the Afghan police and army are on target. After the speeches, Afghan Defense Minister Abdulrahim Wardak said he knows western allies are fatigued, but he said they've only now got the right strategy in Afghanistan.
Mr. ABDUL RAHIM WARDAK (Minister of Defense, Afghanistan): They've been engaged in Afghanistan for nine years, but they seriously have actually tried since toward the end of 2007. And also, they should realize that victory in such an unconventional warfare - it is not going to be very swift. So it will be gradual.
LAWRENCE: Wardak says rates of attrition in the armed forces are now under control though on some of the battle fronts, desertion and absenteeism can still be a problem. It's little wonder; Afghan troops often feel outgunned and underpaid.
MASSOUD (Translator): They - doesn't have a good - guns, helmet, body armor.
LAWRENCE: Massoud worked as a local translator with British soldiers in the deadly Sangin district of Helmand Province. A near-miss with a land mine convinced him to quit. He understands why many Afghans leave the army.
Mr. MASSOUD: One day I ask from one of the boys - he says that I don't have enough money to pay, to give to my son to go to the school. In this case, I can't fight. If they give me a good money, I can fight good.
LAWRENCE: Obama's surge of 32,000 U.S. troops has taken territory away from the insurgents, especially in southern provinces like Helmand and Kandahar. At the same time, the Taliban has gained territory in other parts of the country.
Military officials acknowledge the real score card can't be measured until springtime, when the fighting season resumes. Meanwhile, the collateral effects of the surge are mounting.
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LAWRENCE: Refugees from the fighting in the countryside crowd the slums of Kandahar.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: I lost my daughter and her husband, and six of their children, says one farmer, who asked not to give his name. He says an American mortar landed on his house.
Civilian casualties continue to plague the U.S. war effort here, even though Afghan and international monitors blame the Taliban for most of them.
The farmer wonders why the Americans, with all their technology, can't manage to tell insurgents from civilians. This sense of disappointment, after nearly a decade of American intervention, is nearly universal in Afghanistan. That includes disappointment with efforts to strengthen democracy here.
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LAWRENCE: In Kabul, candidates and voters are still protesting the October 18th parliamentary elections. As with last year's presidential contest, charges of fraud, bribery and violent intimidation marred the vote.
Daoud Sultanzoy lost his seat from Ghazni province after violence in his home district closed the polling stations.
Mr. DAOUD SULTANZOY: I hope that it has alarmed the international community that if we do not pay attention to fair representation in a country that is at war, the counterinsurgency efforts will take a turn to the wrong direction. And that's our fear in a war-torn country.
LAWRENCE: The goal of good governance figures in the Obama administration's review. But that area gets the worst marks, with almost no improvement on corruption - from the presidential palace to local traffic cops.
As for President Obama's top priority, denying a safe haven to al-Qaida, Afghans point to the safe havens next door in Pakistan. A Pentagon report to Congress last month acknowledged that there has been no measurable progress at cutting the lines of support between Pakistan and the Afghan insurgency.
American officials say they expect the Afghan war to end with a political settlement, in any case. But that, too, revolves around Pakistan, says Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir.
Mr. HAROUN MIR (Political Analyst): I think more than the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, I think what is important is to reach an agreement with Pakistan because ultimately, Pakistanis are deciding for the Taliban. And they have tremendous leverage over the Taliban.
For example, the Taliban leadership live in Pakistan. Their families live in Pakistan. Training camps - and everything - is through Pakistan. So I think the ultimate discussion would be between the United States and Pakistan, rather than Mullah Omar and Karzai.
LAWRENCE: The Taliban has consistently denied American claims that talks are under way. In a huge embarrassment for Karzai and the U.S., one of the Taliban leaders they negotiated with this autumn turned out to be an imposter. And Afghan society and government are divided on how much common ground they can find with the Taliban.
The Obama administration's December review may not delve into that subject -especially since, despite the exhaustive evaluations being made, the White house has already put out signals that this review will not result in any policy changes.
And many of even the harshest Afghan critics of the Obama policy think it would be a disaster for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan in the state it is today, says Daoud Sultanzoy.
Mr. SULTANZOY: I love Americans. They're wonderful people. Please, Americans, listen to my plea. If you want to leave Afghanistan the way we are, Afghanistan will not leave you. Afghanistan will be the bastion of instability, will be the nest for disturbance and extremism. Afghanistan will come and knock on your doors.
LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.
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