Since the United States invaded Iraq six years ago, its attention, effort, and military know-how has tilted toward the Gulf. Perhaps as soon as Friday, President Obama is expected to shift that focus, announcing a new strategy for Afghanistan and the neighbor with which it is entwined, Pakistan.
It is an announcement with echoes of the US "surge" in Iraq, when America increased its commitment to Iraq and turned to a new strategy that prioritized protecting Iraqis as much as killing terrorists. In the broadest terms, plans for Afghanistan will be along the same lines.
Yet the challenges presented by Afghanistan are an order of magnitude greater than they were in Iraq – involving a state with virtually no rule of law, a government rife with opium-fueled corruption, and an insurgency spanning two nations and entrenched in some of the world's most inhospitable terrain.
"Unlike Iraq and some of the other problems, this is an area where I've been somewhat uncertain in my own mind what the right path forward is," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently.
Given the scope of the task ahead – and the fact that priorities in Afghanistan have been long delayed by America's emphasis on Iraq – some in Washington are preaching patience.
"Whatever [the plan] is, it's going to be long-term," says one Republican staffer on Capitol Hill who was not authorized to speak with the media. "We're going to be spending money on Afghanistan for a long time."
Mr. Obama's plan is the culmination of input from various quarters of government, some of which continue to have fundamental differences over the ultimate goals for Afghanistan, just days before Obama is to announce the way ahead. Whether he will launch the plan with a formal announcement or simply begin its implementation more quietly was not clear Wednesday morning. Several media reports suggested that he could unveil the strategy Friday. Yet the broad brush strokes of the plan are already clear.
The 17,000 American troops Obama has promised for Afghanistan are expected to be crucial in bringing some measure of stability to the south, where British and Canadian forces have not been able to dislodge the Taliban from vast swaths of territory.
Unlike Iraq, where the insurgency was largely confined to urban areas, the insurgency in Afghanistan resides in wide-open, rural areas, posing a challenge to a small international force that has long been overstretched. Gen. David McKiernan has declared the south a "stalemate."
Yet the insurgency there is relatively isolated, according to NATO officials, who say that nearly three-quarters of the terrorist activities occur in only 5 percent of the country's more than 360 districts.
Once security is established in areas, the US and NATO may be able to reconcile with some elements of the insurgency – typically low-level insurgents who are driven more by economic realities than ideology – in a way that produces a similar outcome as that in Iraq, says a top official who could speak to the media only on condition of anonymity.
As with the Iraq surge, an increase of troops is seen as being only one element of the new Afghan strategy – and perhaps not the most important.
"It's not a military solution to Afghanistan, period," says one American military officer with extensive experience in Afghanistan, who says the way to victory is not using the military alone but the so-called whole of government.
As in Iraq, the troops are seen as merely the means for providing some measure of security so that Afghanistan's other, deeper problems can be addressed.
•A "civilian surge" will send Americans with wide-ranging expertise to Afghanistan to help it build its civilian institutions, which are largely inefficient or nonexistent. For example, the State Department is reportedly planning to send 14 foreign-service officers to Afghanistan – something experts and the military have been calling for for years, saying the US will only succeed if it increases Afghans' capacity to help themselves.
•The US will ask allies for more money and training to help build Afghanistan's police and Army – seen as key to the country's long-term stability. There are now only about 160,000 trained soldiers and police officers in a country that is larger and more populous than Iraq. Iraq now has about 600,000 police and soldiers. The New York Times has reported that some officials would like to increase the Afghan number to 400,000. A French plan to build a gendarme or paramilitary force to bridge a perceived gap between the police and the military is also under consideration, but several American officials dismissed it as unnecessary.
•The US will have to increase dramatically its counternarcotics role. Though NATO countries agreed last fall to target drug traffickers with their military forces in Afghanistan, there has been little action, both because of their limited resources and their belief that drug issues are a law enforcement issue, not a military concern. US officials disagree, contending that the poppy trade is central to the insurgency.
•The US is poised to send as much as $1.5 billion in nonmilitary aid to Pakistan. The goal is to address the roots of insurgency in Pakistan's tribal belt, where many terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan have their command-and-control hubs. Bringing development to this impoverished region is seen as one way of undercutting terrorists' influence.
In many ways, Pakistan presents far more difficult problems than does Afghanistan. While the US has a relatively free hand in Afghanistan, it must work through the civilian government in Pakistan, which has lurched from one crisis to the next and lacks popular support for antiterrorism campaigns. The Pakistan Army appears increasingly open to US concerns, but it is trained and equipped to fight India, not insurgents.
"They are totally incapable of conducting counterinsurgency [operations]," says one American official. "It's all about tanks, rockets, and strike fighters."
This is partly why the Obama administration has reportedly kept up its airstrikes inside Pakistan using drones. The Pentagon has also sent in up to 100 special forces soldiers to conduct counterinsurgency training inside the Pakistan border, and American officials hope Pakistan will be willing to accept more.
While the revamped mission in Afghanistan could take years, Obama seems to have his eye on the door at the same time, an echo of many allies who have made it clear their commitments are not indefinite. "So what we're looking for is a comprehensive strategy, and there's got to be an exit strategy," said Obama during a recent interview with the "60 Minutes" news program. "There's got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."