Washington (AFP) Nov 1, 2008
An expanded US military involvement awaits a new US president in Afghanistan where the unfinished business of September 11 has flared over the past three years into a major insurgency.
A raft of assessments and reviews now underway in Washington point to a fundamental rethinking of the Afghan war.
But whoever is elected Tuesday will face choices on the size of the military buildup, how to strengthen the central government, how far to go in dealing with insurgent sanctuaries across the border, how to help stabilize Pakistan, and whether and how to reconcile with the Taliban, analysts say.
"In my view they are going to find in Afghanistan a situation that is dire and getting worse," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official with long experience in the region.
The momentum, he said, is now with the Taliban, which in the past year has expanded the battlefield from southern Afghanistan to the east and even to the outskirts of Kabul.
Unrest could spread to new areas this winter because of an acute food shortage arising from a drought, he said. The combination of hunger and bad security is "an explosive mix," he added.
"I think the question of getting additional forces into Afghanistan is one that is going to have to be made right away. There is very little room for extended policy review on this. This is a crisis that's immediate," he told AFP.
Both Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, and John McCain, his Republican rival, agree more US troops are needed, even at the risk of alienating Afghans with a larger, more intrusive military presence.
But it is unclear how many more troops ultimately will be required, or how soon they can be provided.
General David McKiernan, the top US commander in Afghanistan, insists he needs three more combat brigades and thousands of support troops -- up to 20,000 additional troops -- on top of a combat brigade being sent in January.
Currently, there are 32,000 US troops in Afghanistan, 13,000 of them in the 53,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
The Pentagon has said the additional troops must await further drawdowns in Iraq, however.
So, the next president will have to decide which comes first -- Iraq or Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's problems begin with security, but do not end there, analysts say.
The list includes corrupt, ineffectual government, an impoverished economy dependent on a flourishing drug trade, and an unstable, nuclear-armed neighbor that has allowed the insurgency to gain traction in border safe havens.
Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned earlier this month that "the trends across the board are not going in the right direction."
"It will be tougher next year unless we get at all these challenges," he said.
Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, says both candidates are making "a viable, reasonable argument about US troop requirements."
"But the bad news is that neither one has said much about four-fifths of the problem. And what their vision is, what they would do," he said.
The reviews now under way, however, are seen as a sign that Washington is giving the situation serious attention, and that the incoming president will benefit.
"Getting policy toward Islamabad right will be absolutely critical for the next administration -- and very difficult," said Richard Holbrooke, writing in Foreign Affairs.
"The continued deterioration of the tribal areas poses a threat not only to Afghanistan but also to Pakistan's new secular democracy, and it presents the next president with an extraordinary challenge," he said.
But helping Pakistan deal with those problems will require a long-term effort, and a new president may not have the luxury of time if Al-Qaeda strikes the United States from its safe havens in Pakistan.
Likewise, US military commanders say their exit strategy in Afghanistan is an expanding Afghan national army and police.
But it will take four years to double the size of the Afghan army to 134,000, which will still be a small force for a country larger and more populous than Iraq.
With insufficient troops on the ground, the US forces have compensated with air strikes and cross-border missile attacks, which has led to strained relations with Pakistan and public outrage over civilian casualties.
Acknowledging they have no winning military solution, US military leaders in recent weeks have expressed support for efforts by President Hamid Karzai to open talks with the Taliban.
"The problem is it's highly unlikely that the Taliban are going to want to compromise when they think they are winning," said Riedel.
"You have to break their momentum before you're going to see much sign of a willingness to engage in a political process."
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