Gains against militancy remain fragile, says report

In the first presidentially-mandated annual review of its strategy and progress in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, the United States hinted several times that greater cooperation with Pakistan was necessary in the tribal belt located on the Af-Pak border, if extremist safe havens were to be denied.

The White House released on Wednesday a short summary of the classified report, which argued that while the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years had been arrested in much of Afghanistan and reversed in some key areas, such gains would remain “fragile and reversible,” unless the U.S. made “more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks”.

The report, which drew upon a wide range of inputs across the Obama administration, also expressed concern over the presence of nuclear weapons and fissile materials in the region and highlighted the importance of “working with regional partners to prevent extremists, including core Al-Qaeda, from acquiring such weapons or materials”.

The report said the administration reaffirmed President Barack Obama's commitment to proceed with the troop drawdown starting in July 2011 and continuing until the transition from International Security Assistance Forces to Afghan National Security Forces was complete by the end of 2014. This plan was consistent with the agreement reached at the recent NATO Lisbon Summit, the report noted.

“Substantial but also uneven”

Dedicating an entire section to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship the review report described progress in the bilateral relationship as “substantial, but also uneven”. Specifically, the report said there was a need for “adjustment” in terms of cooperation with Pakistan in the denial of extremist safe havens. There was no mention of India in the five-page summary released by the White House.

The report also emphasised non-military aspects of its regional strategy, noting that “the denial of extremist safe havens cannot be achieved through military means alone, but must continue to be advanced by effective development strategies”.

The Af-Pak review report also drew attention to the continued challenge that Al-Qaeda posed to U.S. interests — here too underscoring that the epicentre of that threat lay within Pakistan.

“We remain relentlessly focused on Pakistan-based Al-Qaeda because of the strategic nature of the threat posed by its leadership,” the report argued, adding that the U.S. remained committed to “deepening... our partnerships with Pakistan and Afghanistan in a way that brings us closer to the defeat of Al-Qaeda”.

While the report left little doubt that the planned troop drawdown would proceed in July 2011, it noted that any such action would be “conditions-based,” and in particular would depend on the “major challenge” for the Afghan government to show it had the capacity to consolidate gains in geographic areas cleared by ISAF and ANSF.

The study also said American diplomacy would support to “Afghan-led reconciliation” as a key enabling condition for peace and stability in Afghanistan, a process that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has favoured.