Obama war cabinet mulls Afghan review

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WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama finalised his Afghan strategy review with his war cabinet on Tuesday in a meeting shrouded by the death of veteran diplomat and US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke.
Obama lauded the hard-charging Holbrooke as a “giant” of US diplomacy after he died from a ruptured aorta late on Monday, and his war plan must now go ahead without input from the man masterminding a civilian “surge” in Afghanistan. Tuesday’s somber meeting, in the secure White House Situation Room, comes two days before Obama is due to reveal results of his review into the year-old “surge” plan designed to crush Al Qaeda and break the Taliban’s momentum.
Officials have signalled for months that no big changes of tack are expected and that the review will tout progress against the Taliban in its eastern and southern heartlands but recognise stiff challenges remain. And although Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs says Obama believes progress is sufficient to allow a “conditions-based” drawdown on time by July 2011, large-scale US troop reductions are not expected.
The key date now is 2014, which NATO partners agreed at a summit last month to establish as the target for Washington and its weary allies to cede full control to Afghan security forces. “We have progress and we have challenges,” Gibbs said, assessing Obama’s decision to surge 30,000 troops into a conflict – that at nine years – is now America’s longest hot war abroad. “We have many challenges in both security and governance.” Obama signalled the likely outcome of his policy review during a visit to Afghanistan this month, telling troops they were achieving their objectives and would succeed.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates says the US strategy has exceeded his expectations – with the US military claiming success in wiping out Taliban mid-level commanders and in operations its eastern and southern bastions. But there is some evidence of rising Taliban strength in northern and western districts where there is less of a US troop footprint. And the review may leave fundamental questions over the future of the war unanswered, including are US gains sustainable? Will Afghan forces merge into a true fighting force? Will the Taliban simply outwait foreign soldiers?