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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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Despite this, Washington and Islamabad's shared war against Al Qaeda has brought the two closer together. American officials say increased pressure from their side as well as the rise of a civilian government in Islamabad have brought cooperation to an all-time high. The Pakistani and American militaries are now undertaking joint military operations along the Afghan-Pakistani border, for example.

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However, if violence continues to worsen in 2009 and Pakistan is not seen to crack down on the Afghan insurgents, tensions between the two countries could rise again. In addition, US officials expect to continue the policy of airstrikes in Pakistani territory, which Pakistanis oppose. Finally, tensions between India and Pakistan could distract Islamabad from its fight against militants and hurt its relations with the West.

What's ahead for the Afghan government?

Presidential elections are scheduled for the fall and could prove pivotal. Analyst Mr. Rafeh says that poor security conditions in many parts of the country may preclude elections and deal a major blow to Washington, which views elections as a benchmark of success.

The government is under fire from all sides for being corrupt and ineffective, and Hamid Karzai's popularity has plunged as a result. Nonetheless, a lack of strong alternatives might give him an easy victory if elections do occur, albeit with a low voter turnout.

Eroding support for the central government and the poor security environment risk undermining the gains made in the post-Taliban era, which include the country's first democratically elected government, and advances in the spread of education and healthcare.

What is NATO's future in the country?

The 41 NATO countries involved in Afghanistan – who make up roughly 55,000 of the 70,000 troops in the country – have differing rules of operation. Some refuse to deploy to combat-intensive zones and others have already set withdrawal dates. "The international forces can't fight the Taliban if they don't have a unified command and outlook," says Rafeh.

On the battlefield, some consolidation is already taking place. US and NATO forces now answer to a single commander, for example. For 2009, the international forces plan to put command of the volatile southern region permanently under the Americans, instead of the current arrangement of rotating leadership between NATO countries. Officials say this will make the military effort more streamlined and effective.

On the political level, observers expect progress to be slower. Many countries have to deal with their own internal politics, says Rafeh. It might be politically risky for Germany to send troops to the violent south when the majority of its population is antiwar.

The danger in this, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned nearly a year ago, is in NATO becoming "a two-tiered alliance of those willing to fight and those who are not."