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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DON GONYEA, host:

And I'm Don Gonyea.

We're about to begin the year when President Obama's administration wants to start reducing U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: The key word there is start. The administration has made it clear that many U.S. troops will remain for years.

GONYEA: But 2011 will mark a milestone, and it's in that light that the administration has completed a review of its strategy.

INSKEEP: Despite news of violence and corruption in 2010, U.S. officials point to progress. They say they've taken back towns and villages from the Taliban.

They also acknowledge serious challenges ahead, as NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN: The overall conclusion of today's report has been hinted at for months. Back in June, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates talked about how his top commander - it was General Stanley McChrystal at the time - was on the right track.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): I think General McChrystal is pretty confident that by the end of the year, he will be able to point to sufficient progress that validates the strategy and also justifies continuing to work at this.

MONTAGNE: So it's now the end of the year, and the administration has said, basically, just that - there's been progress and the strategy needs more time.

Here's Secretary Gates, during a visit to Afghanistan, just last week.

Secretary GATES: And I will go back convinced that our strategy is working, and that we will be able to achieve the key goals laid out by President Obama last year.

MARTIN: Administration officials say this review isn't a referendum on the strategy itself, but a close look at how it's being implemented; a gut check on what's working and what's not. And there are things that are working. U.S. led operations in the southern part of the country have pushed insurgent groups out of key areas. Special Forces raids have captured or killed hundreds of insurgent leaders in the past few months.

Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says some progress was inevitable.

Dr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Chairman, Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies): There was almost no way that we could avoid putting major military forces into Afghan villages in the south, and not score really major initial gains.

MARTIN: The big challenge is figuring out how to make the gains stick. The review acknowledges that and says, quote, "The challenge remains to make our gains durable and sustainable."

Robert Grenier thinks that's key. He was the CIA station chief in Pakistan and former director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center.

Mr. ROBERT GRENIER (Former Director, CIA Counter-Terrorism Center): I think that this report really needs to be focusing on sustainability. It needs to focus on whether or not the current level of U.S. effort, if drawn out to 2014 and beyond, is actually sustainable politically and otherwise

MARTIN: 2014 is when Afghan troops are supposed to take control of the security situation, so U.S. and NATO combat forces can stand down.

Grenier says that can't happen unless the U.S. deals with two intractable issues. First off: Afghan governance - how to make the government in Afghanistan effective enough, so that when the fighting stops there's a system in place to hold things together. And second: The problem of safe havens, where insurgents flee from Afghanistan across the border to Pakistan and regroup.

The trick there is getting Pakistan to step up.

Mr. GRENIER: The U.S. government has not been able to convince Pakistan that it is working towards a strategic goal in Afghanistan, and one that it can achieve which will serve Pakistani interests. And until we can get to that point, there's really very little that can be done about the safe havens.

MARTIN: The administration's review recognizes that getting rid of those safe havens will require greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border. It goes on to say that eliminating the safe havens, quote, "cannot be achieved through military means alone."

Still, the Obama administration is convinced its strategy is the right one and they point to combat gains, especially in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

Mr. T.X. HAMMES (Senior Marine Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies, National Defense University): Tactical success doesn't have any impact if you have strategic failure.

MARTIN: T.X. Hammes is a retired Marine colonel and senior research fellow at the National Defense University. He says despite the progress in combat, the biggest barriers to success remain Pakistan's safe havens and Afghanistan's weak government.

Mr. HAMMES: What do we think is going to change, at the strategic level, between now and 2014, that will translate this tactical success into some kind of strategic success? You go back to the two fundamental questions: Will Pakistan change in a major way by 2014, or will the Karzai government change the way it operates before 2014?

MARTIN: If the answer to those questions is no, Hammes says it's not time for another progress report - it's time for a new strategy.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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