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White House Looks For New Strategy In Afghanistan

The Bush administration is drawing up a new strategy for Afghanistan, an effort that comes as the top U.S. commander there, Gen. David McKiernan, issues another call for more troops to help stem the insurgency.

When the U.S. military first entered the country in late 2001, it made some quick and impressive gains, toppling the Taliban and driving them from their strongholds.

Since then, with the White House focused mainly on Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has steadily deteriorated. McKiernan, the overall commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, says this past year has been particularly bad.

"I think we are in a very tough fight — a tough counterinsurgency fight," McKiernan says. "We're [at] a higher level of violence this year than we were this time last year. We are seeing a greater amount of insecurity in certain areas. The idea that it might get worse before it gets better is certainly a possibility."

Now there is an all-out effort by the Bush administration to come up with a new strategy. The administration is tapping into its various agencies and departments, looking for suggestions. It is also talking to outside experts such as Seth Jones, an Afghanistan analyst at the Rand Corp.

"There clearly has been an increased willingness to reach out to people who have studied Afghanistan and who have at least some general sense of what is causing the insurgency, historical patterns of the country, to at least talk about the current situation and ways forward," Jones says.

An increase in U.S. troop strength is certainly part of the strategy. President Bush has already promised 8,000 more troops, and McKiernan has asked for an additional 15,000 — immediately. McKiernan won't get them, though, at least for several months.

Anthony Cordesman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Afghanistan cannot be secured without a massive increase in U.S. and other troops. The other key element, he says, is going after Taliban and al-Qaida safe havens in the tribal region of neighboring Pakistan.

"One of the problems we've really faced for years is that this is not an Afghan war at all; it's an Afghan-Pakistan war," Cordesman says. "And you can't simply sit back and wait as the situation gets worse and worse in Afghanistan for the possibility that there may be coherent action inside Pakistan."

The U.S. has recently stepped up cross-border attacks against Taliban hideouts in Pakistan, straining ties with the Pakistani government. Many analysts, like Jones, say success in Afghanistan cannot be achieved by military force alone and that the U.S. needs to bring better governance and security to the Afghan countryside.

"Especially areas in the south that are tribal, there really has to be much more of an effort to work with local tribal groups — including village level militias — because there just aren't enough international forces, there aren't enough Afghan national forces to clear and hold a territory in these areas," Jones says.

One idea being bandied about is re-creating a program along the lines of the "Awakening Movement" in Iraq, where the U.S. paid Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents to help keep the peace. McKiernan said that model might not work in Afghanistan.

"What I find in Afghanistan is a degree of complexity in the tribal system which is much greater than what I found in Iraq years ago," McKiernan says. "And I also find that of the over 400 major tribal networks inside of Afghanistan, a lot of that traditional tribal structure has broken down."

Afghanistan's infrastructure is also broken down. Reconstruction programs in many parts of the country have ground to a halt for lack of security. There is much talk of increasing the amount of aid and beefing up the reconstruction effort, but Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University, says it is rather late to start talking about that, seven years after the invasion.

"The fact is our aid that is given is extraordinarily ineffective for many years, and they've done nothing about it," Rubin says. "So now they're talking about it, but there's nothing they can accomplish in the last days of the administration."

Administration officials say their new strategy for Afghanistan will be ready within the next few weeks, just a few short months before a new administration takes office.

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