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Pentagon shifting Afghanistan war strategy to 'shoot more bad guys'?

A White House review of Afghanistan war strategy finds progress, but at the Pentagon support is growing for a shift toward more hard power.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / December 16, 2010

President Obama delivers a statement on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review from the White House Briefing Room in Washington on Dec. 16. The review said 'notable operational gains' had been made since thousands of US troops were surged into Afghanistan under President Obama’s orders.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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The White House assessment of the war in Afghanistan released Thursday does not stray from the Pentagon's prediction that, by year's end, there would be notable progress on the ground there. A bit surprising, however, has been the subtle movement of some senior military officials and key White House advisers away from counterinsurgency – and toward a more cost-effective, and less troop-intensive, strategy.

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The assessment of the US military’s work this year, prepared by the National Security Council with considerable Pentagon input, finds “notable operational gains” since thousands of US troops were surged into the country under President Obama’s orders. “Most important, al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001,” reads the report.

As expected, it paints a rosier picture than does the National Intelligence Estimate, the summary of progress put forward by 16 US intelligence agencies and released to some members of Congress last week.

The White House report concludes that the current US strategy in Afghanistan “is setting the conditions to begin the responsible reduction of US forces in 2011.” The challenge, it notes, “remains to make our gains durable and sustainable.”

But behind the scenes support is growing among senior Pentagon leadership for a considerable shift in US strategy. It would be a shift based, supporters say, on harsh cost realities and a war that, in the words of the go-to think tank for the Obama administration, remains “a wicked problem” in which “all outcomes are likely to be suboptimal for the United States, its allies, and the Afghan people” despite the “yeoman efforts of the last nine years.”

Throughout that time, US soldiers have become earnest students of counterinsurgency warfare. It is the strategy and a belief, championed by Gen. David Petraeus, that the key to winning in America’s current wars is earning the trust and support of the people through good security and strong government programs. In emphasizing building up the state and protecting citizens, counterinsurgency advocates tend to deemphasize insurgent death tolls as a measure of success.

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