Afghanistan Success Depends on Afghans, Pakistan

President Obama says the United States is "on track" in Afghanistan. He released a year-end strategy review Thursday that says al Qaeda's senior leadership is weaker than it's been since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

In much of the country the Taliban's momentum has been stopped or reversed. U.S. troops will begin leaving in July as scheduled.

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports a year ago, the U.S. was, by many accounts, losing in Afghanistan. Now the commander in chief says the tide of battle has turned.

"We've gone on the offensive, targeting the Taliban and its leaders and pushing them out of their strongholds," says Mr. Obama. Special Report: Afghanistan

Defense secretary Gates is just back from visiting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"The sense of progress among those closest to the fight is palpable. The Taliban control far less territory today than they did a year ago," he says.

Progress is only temporary unless Afghan forces can take over the fighting from the Americans and that will require 18 to 24 months depending on the area. For instance, the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah in southern Afghanistan where the Marines launched an offensive 11 months ago.

"If you look at Marjah in terms of next summer - so six months from now - we think we're going to be in a pretty good place in Marjah," says Gates.

That fits the president's timetable of beginning a withdrawal down from the current 100,000 troops in July 2011 but still leaves the U.S. a long way from meeting its goal of all combat troops out by the end of 2014.

"For the security gains to be sustained over time there is an urgent need for political and economic progress in Afghanistan," says Mr. Obama.

That means a less corrupt, more efficient Afghan government. There are 250,000 Afghan soldiers and police but 4,000 to 5,000 go AWOL each month. U.S. officials call that "unacceptable." And there is a shortage of civil servants, the ones who actually deliver government services, in every province.

On the other side of the border in Pakistan, record floods have stymied the Army's offensive against the terrorist safe havens which send fighters into Afghanistan.

Gates says, "It's hard to overstate the impact of the flooding in Pakistan and the role - and the degree to which the military - military assets were drawn off the border to be able to deal with the flooding."

General David Petraeus is said to believe that as long as there are safe havens in Pakistan, the Afghans will be unable to fend for themselves.

Will the Afghan government actually govern? And will the Pakistani government go after the terrorist safe havens in its border area? If the answer to either or both those questions is no, then soldiers and Marines could spend the rest of their careers chasing the Taliban around Afghanistan without ever achieving anything that looked like success.

The U.S. and its NATO allies are recruiting and training Afghan soldiers and police as fast as they can - even teaching them to read and write at a third grade level. The coalition of 49 countries has also set up civil service academies to train a new generation of government officials.

You can't teach experience. It only comes with time - time for a green private to become a seasoned sergeant, time for a bureaucrat to learn the intricacies of planning and budgeting. The bar is low - General David Petraeus says the Afghans only have to be "good enough" for the Americans to leave - but the clock is ticking on political support at home.

A more fundamental problem is that the Pakistanis just do not see the same enemy that we do. To them, the enemy is the Pakistani Taliban, the ones conducting terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. To us, the enemy is the Afghan Taliban and its fellow insurgents who are crossing into Afghanistan and killing American soldiers.

You can't blame the Pakistanis for going after their enemy first, but as long as insurgents are able to shuttle back and forth across the border, the Afghans will never get to "good enough."

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.