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U.S. reviews Afghanistan mission amid concerns

  • Story Highlights
  • The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has launched a mission review
  • Review to focus on U.S. troop activities on Afghanistan's border with Pakistan
  • Senior U.S. military official: Taliban movement has become more diverse
  • The news of the review comes as officials tout progress in the Iraq war
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From Barbara Starr
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Amid rising concerns about lagging progress in Afghanistan, the top U.S. commander in the region has launched a review of the American mission there with a major focus on counterterrorism efforts, a senior U.S. military official said Sunday.


A U.S. special force soldier in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province on December 15

Adm. William Fallon, the head of U.S. Central Command, has ordered senior staff to conduct a thorough review of the six-year-old war against al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan, the senior official confirmed to CNN.

The review has been under way for several weeks, and Fallon is not considering any new recommendations until its completion, the official said.

The study, first reported by The New York Times, is focused on efforts by U.S. troops along Afghanistan's rugged border with Pakistan.

U.S. intelligence concluded early this year that al Qaeda has carved a new safe haven since the overthrow of its Taliban hosts after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

The news comes as officials tout progress in Iraq, saying the country is experiencing its most significant dip in violence since the first year of the invasion. On Sunday, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. general in Iraq, told The Associated Press that fewer weapons and fighters entered Iraq from Iran and Syria over the past month. And Iraq's Interior Ministry said civilian deaths caused by war-related violence in Iraq dropped for a third straight month in November.

But in Afghanistan, U.S. commanders have seen an increase in attacks by the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic militia that ruled most of Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks.

While the U.S. military feels it maintains a battlefield advantage over the Taliban, the senior official emphasized that the "there are far too many bombings and far too many IEDs."

He emphasized that the Taliban movement has become more diverse, with religious ideologues joined by local fighters hired for pay, warlords, drug bosses and those simply fighting over local disputes.

In addition, he said, a number of al Qaeda fighters have moved into Afghanistan unexpectedly in 2007. He declined to say how many had been detected, but said they included Arabs, Uzbeks and fighters from North Africa.

The senior military official said much of the data being collected about the fighters and attacks do not show overwhelming clear trends. For example, at the same time more foreign fighters have appeared, U.S. analysts believe the number of cross-border infiltrations from Pakistan may have declined because of military operations by the Pakistanis, who have attempted to crack down on the largely lawless Northwest Frontier territories under U.S. demand.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates pressed for greater support for NATO allies in Afghanistan during a weekend conference in Scotland, urging European allies to bolster their contributions of troops and helicopters to the region.

And reconstruction aid and NATO combat efforts "aren't as coordinated as they should be," the U.S. military official said.

That lack of coordination and NATO support is one of the reasons for the review, he said.

About 26,000 U.S. troops and another 20,000-plus allies are involved in the battle for Afghanistan. In a House committee hearing last week, Gates called for a reconstruction effort led by a civilian representative to bolster support for the NATO-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Two Bush administration sources told CNN that Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of Britain's Liberal Democratic Party, is a leading candidate for that post. Ashdown also served as the U.N. high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006, overseeing implementation of the peace accords that ended that country's civil war in 1995.

In October, Ashdown told a British newspaper that the allies were at risk of losing the war in Afghanistan and said major instability in the region would be inevitable if the Taliban regained the upper hand.

Gates has been increasingly critical of some NATO allies' lack of support for the effort in Afghanistan, urging the alliance to provide additional troops and helicopters for the mission.

Two senior State Department officials say that agency also has begun a review of its diplomatic and aid assistance efforts in Afghanistan to complement the military review. That study is being coordinated by Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs.


The officials say this review centers on finding additional "soft power" efforts -- non-military aid that could be added to current levels in an effort to augment ongoing military efforts.

NATO has already been reviewing its long-term commitment in the country even as the alliance has come under growing criticism from the Bush administration for failing to deliver troops and helicopters that it had committed to combat operations. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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