The last of three reports examining key questions shaping U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration is near the end of a major review of the war effort in Afghanistan, and top on the list of priorities is increasing security in the country. Violence has spiked, especially in the southern regions — a stronghold of the Taliban.
Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan, has been pressing for more than a year to get more troops in the region he described as "an area where we do not have sufficient security presence, an area that has deteriorated somewhat, an area where we need persistent security presence in order to fight a counterinsurgency."
McKiernan has gotten some of what he asked for, as President Obama recently approved sending 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
Just a few weeks ago, the president traveled to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where 8,000 Marines there were supposed to deploy to Iraq. Instead, by May they'll be beefing up McKiernan's force in Afghanistan, where they will be positioned alongside British troops in the southern province of Helmand.
McKiernan has plans for the other new troops as well. In Kandahar province, 4,000 American soldiers will work with Canadian forces. Defense officials hope these additional U.S. troops can stabilize Afghanistan within the next three to five years. That would address the first of the so-called concrete goals that Defense Secretary Robert Gates talks about.
Another goal for Afghanistan is helping to develop roads, electricity, schools and irrigation to the tune of billions of dollars.
Air Force Lt. Col. Brett Sharp was tasked with building a road to cut through the mountains of Afghanistan last fall.
"It's going to be the main artery from Gardez to Khost and provide a connection between Pakistan and the ports that are in Pakistan all the way through those provinces up to Kabul, so it will increase economic development throughout the entire southeast region," says Sharp, who has since left his post and turned over the job of building the road to another Air Force officer.
That's the pattern: The task of fighting — and building — Afghanistan has largely fallen to the military. Now there's a big push to get more civilians to help out.
"I would say that really where we need the help as we look to the weeks and months ahead is on the civilian side," Gates told NPR earlier this week. "Whether it's agricultural specialists or people who can help with governance, economic development and so on."
Some of those civilians are on their way. McKiernan says dozens of FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents are coming to help go after Afghan drug labs and traffickers, a key funding source for the Taliban.
A Struggling Government
But McKiernan says that's just a start. If the military is sending thousands more soldiers and Marines, civilians have to step up, too.
"There has to be a parallel commitment of civilian capacity-building," McKiernan says.
That's a pitch Obama is expected to make to NATO allies at a summit next month in France: send more civilian government experts as well as others from private organizations and universities.
Those extra civilians, together with the military, will press ahead on another concrete goal Obama talks about for Afghanistan: a more responsible government.
"You don't see that yet in Afghanistan," Obama says. "They've got elections coming up, but effectively the national government seems very detached from what's going on in the surrounding community."
Local Afghans would choose a harsher word to describe President Hamid Karzai's government: corrupt. They say it's not providing even basic services, and that Karzai's hand-picked officials are stealing government funds or demanding payoffs, right down to the police and customs agents.
Here, the solution isn't more troops or dollars, it's politics — like working more with local leaders and tribal chiefs, instead of just the national government.
That also means pushing Karzai to do a better job of governing and prodding him to fire corrupt officials.
An outline of the Obama administration's new strategy is expected later this month.