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As troop drawdown nears, is NATO surge working in Afghanistan?

As Obama's promise of a troop drawdown nears, the US military says the surge of tens of thousands of NATO reinforcements that began last year has won some and lost some against the Taliban but needs more time to succeed.

By Anna Mulrine/ Staff Writer, / Correspondent / June 10, 2011

US soldiers preparing to leve a combat outpost, north of Kandahar on April 23. Obama has promised a troop drawdown, but the US military says the surge of tens of thousands of NATO reinforcements that began last year needs more time to succeed in its strategy to oust the Taliban. This cover story for the June 13 weekly issue of the Christian Science Monitor looks at the successes and failures of the strategy.

Reuters photo/John Kehe illustration

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Washington; and Kandahar, Afghanistan

As the longest war in American history nears its second decade, US military power is at its zenith in the Afghanistan war. The surge of 30,000 new American troops into the most violent areas of the country, authorized by President Obama after a wrenching policy debate with his closest advisers in 2009, was designed to bolster overall NATO strategy to wrest momentum away from insurgents who were gaining territory and tacit support among locals eager for some peace and stability.

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Now, however, the Pentagon will begin to fulfill a promise made by Mr. Obama to start drawing down US troop levels in July 2011, marking the first tangible step toward an exit from the conflict.

Against this backdrop, as the president's advisers decide precisely how many troops to bring home this summer, they will be grappling with a key question: Has the surge worked?

To this, the US military tends to give a qualified answer: not quite yet. Spectacular attacks by insurgents continue throughout the country. Roadside bombings are up, as is violence in many parts of the country, officials acknowledge. And more NATO soldiers died during this April and May – the opening months of the fighting season – than in that same period of any year of the war.

The same officials are quick to add, however, that the surge is having an impact in some pivotal areas. Commanders have stepped up Special Operations Force attacks on insurgent leaders to considerable effect. And America's exit strategy – to train Afghan security forces so that they can keep the peace when US troops leave – is continuing apace.

What's more, it makes sense that violence is on the rise, they argue: NATO troops are in areas where they have never been before, and insurgents are fighting back. "We're seeing the Taliban come back, not unexpectedly, to try to retake territory we took last year," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told reporters on June 2.

The common denominator in these assessments is that the military needs more time: The new troops technically have not been in place for long, commanders universally point out – it was only in the fall of 2010 that the bulk of forces arrived in the country.

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