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Clear, Hold, Handoff Remains Afghan Plan

The Obama administration today tried to paint a picture of an Afghan-Pakistan strategy that's working, citing steady yet tenuous improvements in areas where NATO forces are "clearing and holding" ground from Al Qaeda and the Taliban, hopefully paving the way for NATO to hand over security to local officials by 2014.

Saying the focus of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is disrupting, deterring and defeating Al Qaeda, not nation building, President Obama along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright emphasized the importance of offensive operations against Al Qaeda aimed at shoring up the country by July, 2011.

At that point, U.S. and NATO forces will begin looking at how to start handing control of security matters to Afghan forces with the hope of a full transfer of authority by 2014.

Still, all of this will depend on how well the fight goes in the next six months as well as the levels of competence afghan forces show from July, 2011 onward.

"As the Afghans increase their capability, then we can move to more challenging parts of the country and at the same time all of us can begin drawing down our forces based on conditions on the ground," said Gates during a press conference at the White House. "This is really the path out for everybody. The whole idea in the military strategy is to halt the momentum of the Taliban, reverse it, degrade their capability and deny them control of major population centers. At the same time, you build the capacity of the Afghan national security forces to take on a degraded Taliban."

Nonetheless, the withdrawal of U.S. troops will be conditions based, "in terms of what that line looks like, beyond July 2011, we don't know at this point, but the hope is, as we progress the draw-downs will be able to accelerate," added Gates. He added that a key metric to see if the U.S. strategy is working is to measure if Afghan troops can effectively take over in a region within 18 to 24-months of U.S. and NATO troops arriving.

The officials were briefing reporters on the newly released Afghanistan-Pakistan war report that was released today.

Gates later echoed the president's statements that the U.S.' goal in Afghanistan isn't "to create a 21st Century Afghanistan or a country entirely free of corruption" but to "turn back the Taliban's military capabilities to the degree that the Afghan security forces" can deal with them, allowing the local governments to provide basic services.

Once U.S. and NATO troops handover security to the Afghans, they will still maintain a significant advisory presence. The U.S. will not repeat past mistakes of neglecting the region, Clinton repeatedly said.

While U.S. forces are making slow but steady gains in capturing territory from insurgents within Afghanistan, the key to the mission will be Pakistan's collaboration in dealing with what Cartwright called a "strategic vulnerability"; terrorist safe havens on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border.

Gates and Cartwright called Pakistan's sending of 140,000 troops to the border regions as unthinkable and unimaginable only 18 months ago.

"There is increasing cooperation on both sides of the border in coordinating military operations," said Gates. "The Pakistanis come in behind the insurgents on the Pakistani sides and coordinates with us and the Afghan's we're on the other side, so [the insurgents] are the meat in the sandwich."

He and Clinton went on to paint a portrait of a Pakistan that has finally been persuaded to get serious about dealing with the threat to its existence posed by the regional terror "syndicate."

In the last two months alone, the U.S. and Pakistan have dramatically increased collaboration in the region, especially in intelligence sharing and operational coordination, according to Cartwright.

"Are we seeing the ability to go after this threat in the coordination and the cooperation, I think we are," said Cartwright during an afternoon press conference on the report at the Pentagon.

He went on to cite joint intelligence centers along the border "where we compare notes, where we have common feeds from our ISR, where we exchange with each other the intelligence along the border," monthly meetings between commanders on both sides of the border, and increased monitoring of trails between the two countries leading to the interception enemy fighters.

All of this collaboration is "moving along faster in the last two months than it has in the last 18 months" and continue to improve on a daily basis, said the General.

Still, all officials agreed that Pakistan could do more to help win the war, repeating that refrain several times during both briefings.

Cartwright added that while it is unlikely the U.S. will be sending more troops to Afghanistan in the next six months, it may tweak the types of troops and assets in the region depending on what commanders there think they need.

"Maybe the character of the forces that we have out there could chance, whether it's more ISR and intelligence type capabilities or greater mobility," said the general. He noted how the Marines have recently brought M1 Abrams tanks into the fight for the first time.

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