WASHINGTON - An independent task force cautioned President Barack Obama Friday about the high cost of the Afghanistan war and said he should consider a narrow military mission if his December review finds the current strategy is not working.
The 25-member task force, led by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former national security adviser Samuel Berger, said it saw "hopeful signs" in Afghanistan, such as improved training of security forces, but other trends were less encouraging.
"The cloudy picture and high costs raise the question of whether the United States should now downsize its ambitions and reduce its military presence in Afghanistan," the task force said in a 98-page report.
"We are mindful of the real threat we face. But we are also aware of the costs of the present strategy. We cannot accept these costs unless the strategy begins to show signs of progress," said the task force, which was sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
Dan Markey, a South Asia analyst at the council who was project director for the report, said the findings were a "sober reflection of a Washington consensus that is increasingly skeptical and concerned" about the war.
The task force was composed of a broad range of former government officials, military leaders, academics and journalists with expertise in the region. The report was not requested by the Obama administration, but the task force did speak to officials involved with the issue.
The group gave a qualified endorsement to Obama's ambitious counterinsurgency-style strategy, but only if it is clearly making progress.
MORE LIMITED MISSION
"If the December 2010 review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan concludes that the present strategy is not working, the task force recommends that a shift to a more limited mission at a substantially reduced level of military force would be warranted," the report said.
The administration's current strategy calls for U.S.-led forces, including nearly 100,000 American troops, to disrupt al Qaeda and its Taliban allies while training Afghan military and police to take over security.
At the same time, foreign civilians are working to help improve Afghan governance in an effort to broaden popular support for the administration.
As the December review approaches, it is increasingly clear that defense officials believe the war plan is working but needs more time, despite rising casualties and worsening violence.
Administration officials have begun to downplay Obama's July 2011 deadline for beginning to hand over security to Afghan forces and withdraw U.S. troops as conditions merit.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week they viewed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's plan to assume full responsibility for the country's security by 2014 as a realistic goal NATO should endorse at its summit this month.
Administration officials have indicated the strategy review is likely to bring only tweaks rather than a wholesale reappraisal of the war effort.
The task force urged the administration to go beyond a narrow evaluation of the places where Afghans may be able to take responsibility for security and also include a "clear-eyed assessment" of whether there is enough progress to conclude the strategy is working.
"The important thing that the report does is to try to clarify what progress should look like," Markey said.
The report urges the administration to answer questions like whether Afghan police and army capabilities have been significantly improved, whether momentum in contested areas has shifted against the insurgency and whether normal life returns to areas once NATO operations have concluded. (Editing by Peter Cooney)
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