Afghanistan and Pakistan take center stage in 2009
Under Obama, the US may send 20,000 more troops and encourage talks with the Taliban in an effort to reclaim the upper hand in Afghanistan.
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However, experts say that an outright military defeat is unlikely in 2009 or beyond. The international forces are too strong in numbers, funding, and technology to be defeated by Taliban guerrillas, says Habibullah Rafeh, a policy analyst with the Kabul-based Afghanistan Academy of Sciences. Instead, he says the real danger is the West remaining bogged down in a protracted military conflict that could last decades and cost billions.Skip to next paragraph
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Can the US turn things around?
The incoming Obama administration pledges to focus more attention on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which critics say were overshadowed by Iraq in recent years. As many as 20,000 additional troops may head to Afghanistan this year. Many of these troops will be deployed in provinces close to Kabul, which currently do not have a significant international presence and are largely under insurgent control.
Military officials say that the additional troops are needed to build a permanent presence in villages and towns. "It doesn't help when [we] go into villages, hand out soccer balls, kill a few insurgents, and then go away," says an officer with NATO forces, who requested anonymity when speaking about military strategy. Instead, he says troops need to hold the territory they have gained and initiate reconstruction projects so that the local population can see the benefits of their presence.
However, many observers say that the additional troops may not be enough to secure the country. The surge will at best bring the total force strength to nearly 90,000, which is still far short of the US presence in Iraq or the Soviet presence during the 1980s. In addition, although there has been a large troop increase over the past two years, violence has increased over the same period.
In December, Western officials announced a plan to arm tribes against the insurgents, recalling a strategy in Iraq that helped weaken Al Qaeda there. The move is highly controversial in Afghanistan, which has a history of civil war and clashing militias.
A more popular strategy among officials is negotiating with the insurgents to end the fighting. The first steps toward reconciliation were made in 2008 when the Afghan government approached former Taliban figures in hopes of sparking a dialogue with current insurgent leaders. Such meetings are expected to continue in 2009, and Washington has publicly backed talks with all but the most senior Taliban leaders.
Washington is also backing Kabul's efforts to reconcile with lower-ranking insurgents. "You talk to ... people who may have fought for local reasons, [such as] tribal reasons," says Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. "There are a number of programs under way [that will] eat away at the support base for the Taliban."
What is Pakistan's role?
Western officials accuse some elements of the Pakistani military of supporting militants based on Pakistani soil who cross into Afghanistan and launch attacks. This has long been a source of tension between the two countries, but in recent years some militants allied with Al Qaeda have also launched a war against Pakistan. The result is that Islamabad follows a duel policy of cracking down on militants arrayed against the Pakistani state – which includes Al Qaeda – but covertly tolerating militants who restrict their fighting to Afghanistan, critics say.