Sorting Out A Clear Strategy For Afghanistan

Memo To The President

In this occasional series, NPR will follow the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. From a broken military to a troubled economy to a National Park Service in need of a major overhaul — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.

The United States invaded Afghanistan just over seven years ago. The immediate goal — to rout the Taliban and al-Qaida from their strongholds — was achieved in good time. But that didn't mean there was a military victory.

When Barack Obama takes office next week, he'll inherit an increasingly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. During the presidential campaign, Obama made clear that he wants to start extricating the United States from an unpopular war in Iraq and increase America's commitment in Afghanistan, where Taliban militants are on the offensive.

That means more resources, including troops. As many as 30,000 additional service personnel will head to Afghanistan, nearly doubling the number there at the moment.

Retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, says the key to success in any counterinsurgency campaign is providing security for the population. So far, he says, the U.S. has not be able to do that in Afghanistan.

"We have to solve that security vacuum. We have to fill it," Nagl says. "The immediate short-term answer is to fill that security vacuum with American forces."

Nagl says that until now, there were sufficient U.S. and NATO troops to clear insurgent areas, but there haven't been enough troops to hold those areas, and so the Taliban fighters return. Nagl says that now is the time for a new administration to devise a clear strategy on how to turn that around.

"The correct strategy is going to be some mix of counterinsurgency — clear, hold and build — and counterterrorism, which is whacking the bad guys. We have to find the right balance between those two," he says. "And they can be mutually reinforcing so that when you're conducting effective counterinsurgency, when you're holding what you've cleared, the people grow to trust you and know you, and they then give you more information, which can be effective in counterterrorism operations."

Too Late For Troop Increase?

Retired Russian Lt. Gen. Ruslan Aushev spent five years in Afghanistan during the 1980s when Soviet forces battled the mujahedeen. Aushev says the new U.S. administration should study the Soviet Union's efforts in Afghanistan before committing more American troops.

"One should realize one thing: It is impossible to solve this problem by force," he says. "One should understand and know the history of Afghanistan. They have always been against foreign troops based in the country."

Many analysts say the time for a troop increase has come and gone. Seven years into this conflict, the U.S. military runs the risk of looking more like an occupation army than a liberation force. Retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international affairs at Boston University, says the incoming Obama administration needs to be realistic about what it hopes to do in Afghanistan. He does not support the concept of nation-building there.

Bacevich says the new administration should focus on America's key interests: "They are simply to ensure that Afghanistan does not provide sanctuary to violent Islamic radicals intent on launching attacks against the United States," he says. "That's just about all that we care about Afghanistan, or should care."

Dealing With Neighbors

Bacevich says the new administration's approach to Afghanistan should complement whatever policy it puts together for neighboring Pakistan. "Pakistan is the bigger danger, the bigger concern, the thing we have to get right," he says.

Christine Fair of the Rand Corporation, who specializes in South Asia, says Obama needs to quickly lay down the law with the Pakistanis — make it clear they need to be fully committed to fighting the militants in Pakistan's tribal areas, who are allies of the Taliban.

"Obama needs to come in and say whatever Bush tolerated, this is a different administration," Fair says.

She says Obama also needs to think about Afghanistan in more regional terms, which may include dealing with its neighbor, Iran. Despite longstanding enmity between Washington and Tehran, Fair says Iran could be helpful. Predominantly Shiite Iran has little interest in seeing the Sunni Taliban come back into power in Afghanistan.

"By just being willing to put on the table 'we're willing to work with you on Afghanistan' signals to Islamabad that gone are the days when American policymakers think that we need Pakistan more than it needs us," she says.

Several policy reviews on Afghanistan are already under way — and are expected to be released not long after Obama is sworn in as the next president.

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