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Afghanistan war, 11 years on: What more can and should the US military do?

Though the work of US troops has become increasingly deadly in the Afghanistan war, many analysts warn that it has not been increasingly effective.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / October 7, 2012

In this 2009 photo, U.S. Marine squad leader Sgt. Matthew Duquette, left, walks with Afghan National Army Lt. Hussein, during a joint patrol in Nawa district, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan.

Brennan Linsley/AP

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It is officially the longest-running war in American history, and its end is in sight: President Obama has promised to pull all US combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

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That date, however, is two years away, and in the meantime, some analysts wonder what more the US military can and should do in the country.

Incidents of “green on blue” insider attacks, by Afghan security forces against the US and NATO soldiers training them, now account for more than 20 percent of those killed in action.

Indeed, the pace of deaths for US troops has accelerated since the surge of 33,000 forces that Mr. Obama ordered into Afghanistan began in 2010.

In particular, it took nine years of fighting in Afghanistan before 1,000 US troops were killed. But the second 1,000 US troop deaths have come in the past two years. Last month in the Afghanistan war, America reached the grim 2,000-US-troops-killed-in-action milestone. On Saturday, two more US troops were killed by insurgents in eastern Afghanistan.

Though the work of US troops has become increasingly deadly, many analysts warn that it has not been increasingly effective.

Pentagon officials point to the 300,000-plus Afghan security forces that have been trained as a result of NATO efforts. But the attrition rates remain high, and these soldiers and police continue to struggle against the network of an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 insurgents – despite the fact that they outnumber them roughly 10 to 1.

Some 5,000 Afghans are now enrolled in the national “reintegration” program that provides job training and cash to former Taliban fighters who have agreed to put down their arms. Though it has “potential,” this program “is not yet a game-changer,” Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, the No. 2 commander in Afghanistan, acknowledges.

In the meantime, the 68,000 US troops that remain in Afghanistan continue to do much of the heavy lifting, in the form of patrols and even the logistics systems that feed, equip, and maintain the Afghan forces.

In roughly half of the war, the focus has ostensibly been on training these Afghan forces. But with the spate of insider attacks, US troops have been forced to implement “guardian angel” programs.

Bradshaw emphasizes that these programs are discreet. “You know, whoever's got the responsibility to keep an eye on their mates while they're taking exercise or playing sport or relaxing in between operations, whoever has that task just tactfully stays on one side,” he says. “Clearly they have a weapon and they're ready to use it if necessary, but they're not constantly in people's faces. It's done in a tactful and sensible manner.”

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