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US troop buildup in Afghanistan could be a defining moment

Obama's order to send 17,000 more troops comes before US has set a clear strategy.

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Some Obama voters had hoped he would effectively end US engagement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while Obama is mulling over the rate at which he will draw down forces in Iraq, he is significantly increasing the force in Afghanistan. Even left-leaning experts say it is the right thing to do if the US wants to be effective there.

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"There is a group of people who supported Obama who are saying 'we don't need a surge,'" says Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official and now a senior fellow with the left-leaning Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington. But that could embolden insurgents who are trying to convince poor Afghan villagers to side with them, he says.

Despite the broad, bipartisan support for the additional troops, there appears to be little agreement on what the strategic objectives should be. At the same time, there is an emerging realism that the US and its allies cannot aim for a high level of democracy in Afghanistan. In recent weeks, senior military officials have begun playing down expectations, saying the country will likely never be a model democracy and that the focus must be on bringing enough security so the Afghans can eventually govern and secure themselves.

One consideration is that the US must work in Afghanistan in coordination with troops from other NATO countries, something most experts agree has hindered success. The complex NATO command structure, and caveats from allies about what their militaries will and will not do, have blunted the overall effort there, they say.

But in the new Obama White House, there is no lack of strategy review. Three separate assessments are under way: one by Admiral Mullen; another by Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, Obama's "war czar" and a holdover from the Bush administration; and a third by Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the region, including Iraq and Afghanistan. A fourth assessment is designed to draw on all the reviews in an attempt to create a composite approach.

While there is still no consensus, many participants say they know what it should not be: an all-military action. Afghanistan, whose people are mostly illiterate and who have a per capita GDP of just $350, needs economic aid and reconstruction. That means other, nonmilitary agencies must contribute to the effort if NATO and the US is to be successful.

Yet another strategy review is looking at how a multitude of US agencies such as the State, Commerce, Justice, and Agriculture Departments can play a role in the mission. That review is headed up by Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and top adviser to three presidents on the Middle East.

Mr. Riedel's review will be complete in 60 days. The president is expected to launch his broad strategy for Afghanistan just prior to a meeting of NATO ministers in April.

That strategy is expected to take on the prickly problem of opium production in Afghanistan, a revenue source that contributes to the Taliban's ability to hold some areas. The US and its allies have not had a significant impact on opium production, leaving the government of President Hamid Karzai to tackle the problem. But despite some successes, the Afghan government has not had a measurable impact on the industry. At the same time, a NATO agreement that would allow its troops to attack the problem has gone nowhere.