President Barack Obama should receive a report on a review of his Afghanistan policy next month, a senior administration official said Nov. 9.
Speaking to reporters on background, the official, who is involved in the review, said the review will help to determine how well the strategy is working and aid in planning the start of transitioning to Afghan control of security.
"By now, patterns develop, which is quite helpful," he said.
The annual review is the first since Obama announced the policy change in a December speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., the official said, but he added that Obama has monitored the situation from the beginning.
"The president made clear he would carefully watch for progress over time, and he’s done that in the course of the last year," he said.
Obama receives weekly written input from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and their subordinates in the field, the official said.
Obama also takes part in a monthly video conference with his national security team and leaders in field, and he receives a comprehensive set of metrics quarterly to measure progress in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in the counterterrorism effort at large, the official added.
The purpose of the annual review, he explained, is to assess trends not obvious at the more frequent intervals.
The review will account for adjustments and revisions that have taken place during the year, such as the initiative to better hire and train Afghan local police, efforts to reintegrate insurgents into civilian society, Pakistan military initiatives, and devastating floods that Pakistan has been dealing with since summer, he said.
The report also will include results of NATO’s Nov. 19-20 summit in Lisbon, Portugal, where officials are expected to discuss transitioning Afghan forces to take the lead on their country’s security, and putting a transition in place to implement over several years, he said.
Also, the official said, he expects a theme to come out of Lisbon that "the Afghans will not have to stand alone."
"I think NATO will look to establish and define their enduring commitments and partnerships," he said.
In the NATO talks, 2014 is being considered as the year to shift the security responsibility from the alliance to the Afghans as originally suggested by President Hamid Karzai.
The review is designed to provide an assessment, but not recommendations, the official said. "This is a diagnostic look at the strategy. It is not prescriptive," he said. "We are not in the business of formulating policy alternatives or different courses of action."
Obama wants to know if the strategy is on the right path, and whether it’s delivering the desired effects at the right pace.
Still, he said, policy implications probably will result in the form of questions the review will raise, which will be taken up in the new year by the national security team.
The review will include input from international partners, as well as leaders on the ground, especially Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the official said. "General Petraeus’ input is fundamental to what we’re gathering here," he said.
Adding, "It’s a bottom-up driven process. In that way, General Petraeus and his regional commanders are absolutely at the controls with their Afghanistan counterparts on what’s doable and on what timeline."
Like the more frequent reviews, the annual review will not be made public due to the national security information involved, but the administration will have announcements for Congress and the public probably in late December or early January, he said.
The official would not be specific about what metrics are being used to assess progress in the region, other than to say it will include "comprehensive" items for measurement. An example, he said, would be in assessing security by looking at trends in violence by districts and which districts are controlled by the Taliban.
A reporter asked how the Afghanistan strategy can succeed with insurgent safe havens in Pakistan. "This is the fundamental underlying question that we’ve examined carefully in the quarterly reviews," the official replied. "There still are safe havens in Pakistan. Getting at those safe havens is fundamental to our approach. You’ve hit on a key item of review."
Also, he said, "We’re seeing some indicators that the Taliban may be under pressure in ways it wasn’t under pressure before. So the question is, which dimensions of the campaign is applying that pressure and how can we sustain it? This gets to the fundamental questions about the military campaign and the political process connected to it."
The official said Obama is standing by his plans to begin to start drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan in July. The review will help to determine the pace of the drawdown, he said, although it "won’t be the defining look," because six more months will pass before then.
At the same time, Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took a different tack in looking to that July 2011 date.
Speaking to reporters in Australia, Gates said the Taliban were "going to be very surprised come August, September, October and November, when most American forces are still there, and still coming after them."
As he has in the past, Gates reiterated that the United States would be in Afghanistan for years to come.
(Editor’s note: This article was based, in part, on an American Forces Press Service report.)