Obama Sets More Modest Goals For Afghanistan

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President Barack Obama's administration is lowering its sights in Afghanistan.

A sort of grim pragmatism has replaced former President George W. Bush's lofty talk of a thriving democracy. Now, the White House and the Pentagon are crafting a new strategy, one that has a rough deadline of five years.

It was just seven weeks ago that Bush met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"The interest," Bush said then, "is to build a flourishing democracy as an alternative to a hateful ideology."

Now, after seven years, tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of U.S. troops killed, the optimistic talk has come to an end. Officials privately say that any notion of a "flourishing democracy" is not even on the horizon and is, at best, many years into the future.

Gates: U.S. Needs 'Concrete Goals'

That more cautionary stance is being led by none other than Robert Gates, who worked as Bush's defense secretary and now holds the same job under Obama.

"The goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far into the future," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon recently.

"We need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years in terms of re-establishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al-Qaida, preventing the re-establishment of terrorism," he said.

Those concrete goals are included in three separate strategy reviews now nearing completion — one by the White House, another by the Pentagon, and a third by Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander in the region.

NPR interviewed several high-level officials and learned details of the reports' contents. Those officials say the reviews are largely in sync with one another — including what is not working.

'Bridging Strategy' To Combat Growing Lawlessness

First, security is deteriorating rapidly in Afghanistan. One defense official put it this way: "The risk is as high as I can see."

Eighty percent of the provinces — by varying degrees — have some form of Taliban "shadow government." That means the insurgents provide services, even a court system. That's significant. "If the insurgents get hold of power," the official says, "you lose."

The reviews discuss how the country's poppy crop is increasingly financing the Taliban resurgence. Concern is also growing over the corruption infecting Karzai's government, which even extends to members of his family, according to U.S. officials in Afghanistan.

To address these problems, officials are developing what they call a three-to-five-year "bridging strategy."

American troops will double to about 60,000 by the middle of 2010. Those deployments already have started with a brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, which will help blunt Taliban advances just south of the capital of Kabul.

Other deployments could be announced within days, including more Marine units that will be heading to the southern part of the country, the Taliban's birthplace and stronghold.

There also are plans for the troops to go after drug labs and drug kingpins, although NATO is wary of this new aggressive mission. And some American officials say this counterdrug effort is best handled by civilians from agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Civilian Experts, Funding Necessary

The strategy reviews also agree on one more point: More troops are not the only answer.

More civilian experts will be needed, to take part in reconstruction teams that are sprinkled around the country. That makes sense to Alex Thier of the United States Institute of Peace, who worked for years as a legal adviser in Afghanistan and helped write the country's constitution.

"Our challenge in Afghanistan is not just to fight the insurgents," Thier says. "It's fundamentally to create an environment where governance and rule of law and economic development will also thrive. And those are things fundamentally that can be carried out by civilians."

So where have the civilians been over the past seven years? And why has Afghanistan deteriorated?

"Unfortunately, we've had a series of different strategies — and many of those or all of those not appropriately or effectively resourced," Thier says.

That means not enough money has been set aside. There also has not been enough coordination with NATO allies. And some of those countries have restrictions or "caveats" on what its soldiers can do, such as taking part in combat.

Overall, officials have said for years there is not enough civilian expertise in areas such as agriculture or drug enforcement. The Obama administration says it will fill that void.

Greater Dialogue With Local Leaders

And the officials say part of the new strategy will include working more closely with Afghan tribal chiefs and local leaders. Right now, the international community is working largely with the national government.

Eliot Cohen, a senior State Department adviser in the Bush administration, emphasizes the need to work at the local level.

"As one Army colonel said to me once when I was flying around Afghanistan, this is a valley-by-valley war," says Cohen. "Circumstance are different, the personalities are different, the issues may be different."

Cohen and many others say it's time to stop tolerating corruption in Karzai's government.

"The challenge is to develop a relationship which is both one of trust on the one hand and where we can also lean very hard on the Afghan government to do the things that are necessary," says Cohen.

There is a sense now that the Bush administration received little benefit through his personal relationship with Karzai. And a new, more hardheaded approach is part of the new plan. Some talk about perhaps withholding money if Karzai doesn't curb corruption or do a better job at delivering services to his people.

But others wonder if the U.S. and its allies really have any leverage with Karzai.

Future Talks With Taliban

Moreover, part of the strategy is to talk — eventually — with those now fighting the Afghan government: insurgents who Petraeus calls the "reconcilable Taliban." Some Taliban — such as the group's leader, Mullah Omar, who is thought to be hiding in Pakistan — are among those considered irreconcilable.

But defense analyst Williamson Murray wonders what can be realistically achieved in what he calls this remote and backward country. He raises a question heard frequently at the Pentagon: "Is the struggle in Afghanistan worth the cost?"

The hope among senior officers at the Pentagon is that five years from now, American troops can begin to withdraw and leave the rest of the job to the growing Afghan security force and those civilian experts.

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