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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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Ultimately, the US approach will include a heavy focus on building up Afghan government forces, the Afghan National Army and police, a job that will likely fall to US forces. NATO has authorized an Afghan force of about 134,000, but only about 90,000 are trained and being used for operations.

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Many American officials have been critical of the government of Mr. Karzai, installed in 2004. While Karzai is considered well-intentioned, he has done little to stem widespread corruption in his government and has not effectively connected the central government to provincial or local governments across the country. The US and NATO allies have focused on strengthening the central government in Kabul. But Afghans, who live in a tribal society and have endured more than 30 years of war, have had difficulty identifying with the concept of a strong central government.

The new US strategy may take a different approach. A report from the United States Institute of Peace says the US should adopt a "bottom up" approach and focus less on the ability of the central government to govern.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates agrees. "I have felt since I took this job that we needed to focus not just on the central government but also on the provincial and district governments, that these have always played an important role in Afghan history," he told a Senate panel recently.

The new strategy will also require the US to rethink its approach to neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have found safe harbor in the mountainous border region of the two countries. The US conducts air strikes inside the Pakistani border to stem the flow of terrorists into Afghanistan. But many of these strikes result in civilian casualties.

"Cross-border raids into Pakistan to pursue insurgents have strained US relations with Pakistan at this critical juncture in the Afghan campaign," write John Nagl and Nathaniel Fick, two former US military officers working at a Washington think tank, in a recent edition of Foreign Policy magazine. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Nathanel Fick. He is a former Marine officer, not an Army officer.] While Pakistan is "inextricably linked" to the Afghanistan insurgency, the authors say, Pakistani support for US efforts is critical. But Pakistan is confronting its own dire political and economic challenges, meaning the government has been unable to support many US efforts, at least publicly. "Without Pakistani support, however, unilateral cross-border raids will create more blowback than they are worth," the authors conclude.

Ultimately, the solution in Afghanistan may involve solving the age-old conflict between the Arab states and Israel, says administration adviser Riedel in a book published by the Brookings Institution, a foreign-policy think tank, last year. Al Qaeda, and the Taliban to some extent, continue to be motivated by the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Riedel argues. If that conflict is resolved, Al Qaeda may go away.

"If Palestinians choose to make peace with Israel, the most fundamental point of Al Qaeda's narrative becomes irrelevant," Riedel writes. "In other words, making peace between Israelis and Arabs is not only wise policy in its own right, but also an extremely useful strategy for pulling the rug out from under Al Qaeda."