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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When Mr. Obama takes office next week, he'll inherit a war Afghanistan that's not going well. NPR's Jackie Northam reports on the challenges the new president will face in what's often called the forgotten war.

JACKIE NORTHAM: During the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama made it clear that he wants to start extricating the U.S. 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 Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, with Center for a New American Security, says the key to success in any counterinsurgency campaign is providing security for the population. Nagl says so far, the U.S. has not been able to do that in Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Colonel JOHN NAGL (Retired, U.S. Army; Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security): We have to solve that security vacuum. We have to fill it. The immediate short-term answer is to fill that security vacuum with American forces.

NORTHAM: Nagl says 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 now is the time for a new administration to devise a clear strategy on how to turn that around.

Lt. Col. NAGL: The correct strategy is going to be some mix of counterinsurgency - clear, hold and build - and counterterrorism, which is whacking the bad guys, right? We have to find the right balance between those two.

NORTHAM: Retired Russian Lieutenant General 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.

Lieutenant General RUSLAN AUSHEV (Retired, Soviet Armed Forces): (Through translator) One should realize one thing: It is impossible to solve this problem by force. Once should understand and know the history of Afghanistan. They have always been against foreign troops based in the country.

NORTHAM: 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 Colonel 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. Bacevich does not support the concept of nation-building there and says the new administration should focus on America's key interests.

Colonel ANDREW BACEVICH (Retired, U.S. Army; Professor, History and International Affairs, Boston University): They are simply to ensure that Afghanistan does not provide sanctuary to violent Islamic radicals intent on launching attacks against the United States. That's just about all that we care about Afghanistan or should care.

NORTHAM: And Bacevich says the new administration's approach to Afghanistan should complement whatever policy it puts together for neighboring Pakistan.

Col. BACEVICH: Pakistan is the bigger danger, the bigger concern, the thing we have to get right.

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

Dr. CHRISTINE FAIR (Senior Political Scientist, RAND Corporation): Obama needs to come in and say, whatever Bush tolerated, this is a different administration.

NORTHAM: Fair says Mr. 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. The predominantly Shiite Iran has little interest in seeing the Sunni Taliban come back to power in Afghanistan.

Dr. FAIR: 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 thing that we need Pakistan more than it needs us.

NORTHAM: Several policy reviews on Afghanistan are already under way and are expected to be released not long after Mr. Obama is sworn in as the next president. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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