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The Obama administration is making substantial revisions to the U.S. goals in nearby Afghanistan. Former President Bush's lofty talk of a strong democracy has been replaced by a sort of grim pragmatism. NPR's Tom Bowman explains that the Pentagon and the Obama White House are now crafting a new strategy that has a rough deadline of five years.
TOM BOWMAN: President Bush always talked about Afghanistan becoming a model for democracy in a dangerous region.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: It's in our security interests that this democracy flourish. Our objective is for you to become a thriving democracy. And then I met with President Karzai, who is determined to help the young democracy survive.
BOWMAN: Now after seven years, tens of billions of dollars, and hundreds of U.S. troops killed, the optimist talk has come to an end.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Secretary of Defense): The goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far into the future.
BOWMAN: That's Robert Gates just two weeks ago. He was defense secretary under President Bush, and now has the same job under President Obama.
Secretary GATES: 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.
BOWMAN: 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 General David Petraeus, the American commander in the region.
NPR interviewed several high-level officials, and learned details about what's in the reviews. Let's start with what the reviews say is not working. 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 have some form of Taliban shadow government, meaning the insurgents provide services, even a court system. That's significant. The official says, quote: If the insurgents get hold of power, you lose.
The reviews talk about the country's poppy crop financing the Taliban resurgence, and how corruption infects the government of President Hamid Karzai. 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 next year. They'll spread out into the Taliban strongholds. There are also plans for the troops to go after drug labs and drug kingpins.
The strategy reviews also conclude that more troops are not the only answer. More civilian experts will be needed. That makes sense to Alex Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace. He worked for years as a legal adviser in Afghanistan.
Mr. ALEX THIER (U.S. Institute of Peace): Our challenge in Afghanistan is not just to fight the insurgents. 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 need to be carried out by civilians.
BOWMAN: So what's been going on the last seven years?
Mr. THIER: Well, unfortunately, we have had a series of different strategies and many of those, or all of those, not appropriately or effectively resourced.
BOWMAN: That means not enough money, not enough coordination with NATO allies, and not enough civilian expertise in areas like agriculture or drug enforcement. The Obama administration says it will fill that void. And the officials say part of the new strategy will include working more closely with Afghan tribal chiefs.
MR. ELIOT COHEN (Former State Department Adviser under the Bush administration): You have to very much work at the local level because, as one Army colonel said to me one when I was flying around Afghanistan, this is a valley by valley war, and the circumstances are different, the personalities are different, the issues may be different.
BOWMAN: Eliot Cohen worked as a senior State Department adviser in the Bush administration. He says it's time to stop tolerating corruption in the government of President Karzai.
Mr. COHEN: The challenge is to develop a relationship which is both one of trust on one hand, and where we can also lean very hard on the Afghan government to do the things that are necessary.
BOWMAN: Part of the strategy is to talk eventually with those now fighting the government, insurgents who General Patraeus calls the reconcilable Taliban. But defense analyst Williamson Murray wonders what can be realistically achieved in this remote and backward country. He raises a question heard a lot now at the Pentagon.
Mr. WILLIAMSON MURRAY (Defense Analyst): Is the struggle in Afghanistan worth the cost?
BOWMAN: 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 Afghan soldiers and civilian experts.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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