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Afghans on troop surge debate: It's the corruption, stupid.

Afghan leaders say any effort that doesn't address election fraud and corrupt officials will fail.

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He, too, is frustrated that the discussion has focused on military rather than civilian plans. But he says that the initial reorientation around counterinsurgency will have to be done largely through the military, since the US does not have enough civilians who are willing and able to function in a war zone.

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Importance of local governments

The counterinsurgency strategy outlined by McChrystal is "not based on working through the central government as it exists," says Cordesman. Rather, it envisions getting tougher on corruption, identifying more capable central government ministries and administrators to work through, and, crucially, focusing on local and regional governments, he says.

Improving local governments has already proven workable in eastern parts of the country, he says.

Ms. Fair counters that it's not possible to simply work around the central government. "Kabul decides where the road is going to go, where electricity installed, and where water resources will go," says Fair.

Nor can you just focus on training the local police while ignoring the political leadership. That is what is currently happening with the NATO police training program known as Focused District Development, she argues.

"What is the point of police training when the Afghan government can't facilitate a process of getting rid of corrupt governors?" Fair asks. "They just get moved around: Why can't they be retired?"

If the still-undecided election goes to a runoff, there's a chance opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah could win, providing an instant shakeup of the government. However, election complaints have been filed against Dr. Abdullah's campaign as well.

Low turnout possible for a runoff

Further, a runoff could attract an extremely low turnout – maybe 10 percent – says Professor Safi, because many voters in the first round were motivated to participate in the provincial level elections.

And if the current government returns to power amidst all these doubts, "then even sending 1 million more troops won't work," he says.

Safi argues for a clean break: Convene a loya jirga, or grand council, that brings together representatives from all regions and factions, including the Taliban. From there, decide on a new government.

"Any decision that comes out of such a loya jirga, with all sides participating, this can lead to an end to war," says Safi. "Nobody should remain outside the deliberations to head out to the mountains."

But the US would be uncomfortable with bringing the Taliban into the government. Others says such a loya jirga would be unwieldy. A better option would be to convene jirgas at the local level and have residents, officials, and international actors all make commitments to each other, says Thomas Ruttig, a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysis Network.

"I'm worried that everything is left to the military, including the political aims involving reconciliation," he says. "I think this should be done by politicians and the diplomats."

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