President Barack Obama is consulting with top military commanders on strategy in Afghanistan, where the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said the situation "grows increasingly perilous every day."
During his election campaign, Obama portrayed the war in Afghanistan as a botched opportunity in the fight against terrorist groups, and he pledged to increase troops and resources there.
The U.S. is considering sending as many as 30,000 additional service personnel to Afghanistan, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate panel on Tuesday that after more than seven years of war, there still is no clear plan for using them.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says Obama should be wary of inheriting plans and strategies that were put together at the end of the Bush administration but never executed. He notes that there are at least three such plans in play, including a White House assessment that was completed in the last weeks of the Bush administration, and studies under way by the Joint Chiefs and Gen. David Petraeus.
"I think they fully understand we are losing the war in Afghanistan," Cordesman says. "Secretary Gates has already made it clear that we're going to have a much more pragmatic approach to the war."
Cordesman says the reinforcement of U.S. troops is only one part of an approach that will have to include building up Afghan forces and pressuring Pakistan to cooperate in fighting militants in its own border region.
Alex Thier, senior rule of law adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, says the troop increase is the first leg in the strategy, in part because it was an Obama campaign promise and partly because it was already in the pipeline, put there after "the late realization from the Bush administration that more troops were needed."
But he says the other elements of the strategy — rule of law and development — still need to be fleshed out.
Civilians Have Lack Of Trust
Thier says security for Afghan civilians must be a key part of the strategy. Right now, he says, people feel squeezed between a corrupt government and a ruthless insurgency.
"So you have a population that doesn't have the capacity either to strongly support or strongly resist either side," he says.
The people see their police as predatory, Thier says, so the U.S. should be careful about expanding the police as a means of increasing security.
"Corruption is the fundamental question as to whether our efforts in Afghanistan will be able to provide long-term security," he says. When the government seems to offer impunity to members of Parliament who have been accused of war crimes in the past, he adds, it's difficult to bolster the rule of law in Afghanistan.
Cordesman says corruption has also hampered economic aid programs that are intended to help counter the influence of the insurgents. He accuses the U.N., the U.S. and various nongovernmental aid agencies of failing to supervise and protect aid programs properly, so that humanitarian and reconstruction help gets to the Afghan people.
Afghans Wary Of U.S.-Created Militias
Thier takes a dim view of a pilot program that American commanders are trying in Wardak province, which would arm citizen groups to fight the Taliban. The program is similar to the "Sons of Iraq" strategy in Iraq, where the U.S. military co-opted former insurgents by paying them to be part of civilian defense groups in their own areas. Thier says the Afghan population is fearful of any plan to create militias, especially since the U.S. and NATO have "spent significant amounts of money during the past seven years disarming existing militias."
One big concern, Thier says, is that because the Taliban is strongest in ethnic Pashtun areas, the militias are likely to be created there. Since much of the disarmament has taken place in non-Pashtun areas, ethnic groups there may see themselves as being weakened, while their ethnic rivals are being armed, something Thier calls "an explosive idea."
Both Cordesman and Thier stress that the U.S. needs to have a realistic, long-term vision for what it can and cannot do in Afghanistan.
In a briefing that he has been presenting to members of Congress, Cordesman says that economic development "may well have to be limited to meeting the most urgent Afghan needs over a five- to 10-year period."
In a new book, The Future of Afghanistan, Thier says that realism must also extend to the amount of time it will take to accomplish sustainable change that's led by the Afghans themselves. He says economic development plans should focus on Afghan agriculture, both as a way of providing people with food security and as an alternative to growing opium. That, he says, will take years to develop.
The man who will be in charge of the Obama administration's strategy in Afghanistan, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, seems to concur. In Foreign Policy magazine last fall, Holbrooke wrote that the situation in Afghanistan is "far from hopeless. But as the war enters its eighth year, Americans should be told the truth: it will last a long time — longer than the United States' longest war to date, the 14-year conflict (1961-75) in Vietnam."