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Hard Choices in Afghanistan: What's Next?

What Is The U.S. Doing In Afghanistan Now?

Soon after taking office, President Obama said America's primary strategic interest is to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al-Qaida and prevent its return to Afghanistan. Obama has also said he doesn't want the Taliban to return to power. He ordered more troops to Afghanistan — U.S. forces there now total 68,000 — and more may be on the way.

As part of a strategy review, Obama is considering a request for tens of thousands of additional troops from his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

NPR's Tom Bowman, currently with the Marines in Helmand province, says about a third of the American forces in Afghanistan are combat troops, mostly deployed in the volatile eastern and southern parts of the country. Bowman says that under McChrystal, the U.S. troops' mission is evolving from "search and destroy" operations against al-Qaida to protecting the population and helping the Afghans improve governance. "The focus is to move U.S. troops toward population areas and away from remote areas like the Korengal Valley, northeast of Kabul," says Bowman.

What's The Cost Of War?

A "staggering" $243 billion. That's according to John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, who covers the Pentagon, points out that it can be difficult to pin down the real financial cost of the war. The Pentagon puts the price tag at $156 billion, but that figure does not include how much the CIA has spent on intelligence operations, or how much the State Department has spent on diplomacy and reconstruction.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, estimates that it costs about $1 million to send one soldier to Afghanistan for one year. Much of the expense involves transporting and supporting troops and equipment. The Pentagon says the figure is probably closer to $500,000 per soldier per year.

The human cost of the war is more apparent. The Pentagon says that since 2001 more than 900 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan. October, with 58 killed, was the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the war began. The Web site says a total of 4,198 Americans have been wounded in Afghanistan.

Who Is The Enemy?

Most Americans would say the Taliban, the militant religious and political movement that sprang up after the collapse of the Soviet-backed Afghan government in the early 1990s. But NPR's Tom Gjelten points out that the top American commander in Afghanistan rarely mentions the Taliban, preferring to talk about "the insurgency" as the enemy.

McChrystal identifies three groups as part of the insurgency: the original Taliban — also known as the Quetta Shura (led by Mullah Omar), the Haqqani network, and the Hekmatyar network. Each group has its own agenda and geographical areas. They are allied, though, and they share the goal of defeating foreign forces in Afghanistan and overthrowing the Afghan government.

Analysts say the insurgent groups are becoming less parochial and more global in perspective. That has led to a deeper and more collaborative relationship with al-Qaida, especially by Haqqani network. Some analysts have argued that the Afghan Taliban is largely a nationalistic group that's focused on Afghan goals and wouldn't be a problem for the U.S. as long as it didn't give al-Qaida a safe haven. The problem, says Gjelten, is more complex than that.

What's The Obama Administration's Perspective?

As a candidate, President Obama pledged to make the Afghan conflict a top priority, and his aides insist it still remains a core interest for the United States.

"It is essential indeed to U.S. national security interests that Afghanistan not be able to serve as a safe haven for extremists and terrorists who would launch attacks again against the United States," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tells NPR. "Obviously an Afghan government with the capacity to provide for its own security and to provide with legitimacy a basic measure of well-being to its people is very important in support of that goal."

Many Republicans have accused the administration of taking too long to conclude its strategic review and decide whether or not to send tends of thousands of extra troops. The review was delayed in part by the aftermath of the disputed Afghan election, which was marred by blatant rigging.

Rice defends the lengthy internal debate as prudent and says it does not signal weakness. "What would be weak and dangerous indeed would be to rush into a decision of this importance and this magnitude without thoroughly considering all of the implications for U.S. national security," she says.

Are U.S. Forces Succeeding? How Is The War Going?

NPR's Bowman says U.S. troops in Afghanistan project a sense that progress is being made, but there is a long way to go. The places where the war is not going so well include Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and the spiritual home of the Taliban. Bowman says American military leaders think it could take at least two more brigades of troops — some 10,000 soldiers — to secure the city.

The U.S. is making some strides in stabilizing the situation in restive Helmand province, where 10,000 Marines deployed over the summer, but U.S. commanders say they still do not have enough troops. In some districts, including Marja, the Taliban and drug traffickers rule and there are no U.S. or Afghan forces. Another goal is building up the Afghan security forces. But U.S. military officials complain that many Afghan troops are corrupt or incompetent.

A clear failure? If the Taliban fought its way back into power and then provided another safe haven for al-Qaida. But Bowman points out that some in Washington question whether it would make much difference to U.S. strategic interests if the Taliban did come back, especially if it didn't provide further help to al-Qaida.

What's The Capability Of Afghan Security Forces?

McChrystal has called for increasing the size of the Afghan army from around 92,000 troops now to 134,000 within a year, and expanding it in the future. The problem is that growth at that pace will take an enormous effort to train and equip so many new fighters.

Retired diplomat Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, says the trick "is not trying to rush it too fast." He says the Afghan army may be "the most locally respected institution" in the country but tells NPR "it is enormously hard to have locally recruited, locally based forces and get away from corruption and local politics." He adds that the problem is greater among Afghan police forces than it is in the army.

On Nov. 4, an Afghan policeman opened fire on a group of British soldiers who were part of a police training mission in Helmand province, killing five. Taliban officials said the man was one of their fighters who had infiltrated the police. Neumann says that while police training is an "experiment," the army, at least, has been "reasonably satisfactory." He adds: "At least in my experience, Afghans have repeatedly asked for more Afghan army."

Do Afghans Trust Their Government?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has emerged as the victor after more than two months of uncertainty over the country's presidential election, but the process was so badly tainted by fraud that some analysts wonder whether his government can have any legitimacy with the Afghan people. But NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, in Kabul, reports that Afghans have more basic concerns than Karzai's legitimacy, and that many say they'll accept him as president if he can deliver on basic services, creating jobs and curbing corruption. One young Afghan man tells Nelson: "This new government should first eliminate bribery and provide work opportunities for the poor. I hope they will do this in five to six months."

In his victory speech on Nov. 3, Karzai pledged to fight corruption by tightening existing laws and beefing up a commission that was set up last year to investigate wrongdoing by public officials. But to gain support in the election, Karzai allied himself with warlords who are widely accused of corruption and atrocities, such as his vice presidential running mate, Mohammad Qasim Fahim.

Many Afghans fear that Karzai will need to pay back his warlord supporters rather than eliminate them from the government.

Is Afghanistan Governable?

Afghanistan has suffered some 30 years of war and tumult that have hardened ethnic divisions and fragmented the country. Ali Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister, calls it "a theme park of problems." Jalali tells NPR that Afghanistan had a relatively stable and united government prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, and he says that Afghans are capable of achieving something like that again. But it will take a long time, he adds.

Patricia DeGennaro, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, says the U.S. has provided some projects and services, but "they've not really built them in the context of giving the Afghans the capacity to take those things over." After the disputed presidential election, she says the best way to move toward effective, legitimate government would be to convene a loya jirga, a national assembly of tribal leaders and elders, including the Taliban. She says the U.S. has the power to pressure Karzai to cooperate with the assembly.

Jalali says the Taliban will have to change its behavior before reconciliation will be possible, but he agrees that it is not possible to defeat it militarily. "You have to outgovern them, not outfight them," he says.

Do Americans Still Support The War?

The public is divided about Afghanistan, Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center, tells NPR. "Earlier in the year, we had majorities saying 'keep the troops there until the situation is stable,' " Kohut says. "Our September polls were split — only about 50 percent saying 'keep the troops there.'"

Kohut says there is "a consensus in the polls that things are not going well there." In August, a Gallup Poll found 54 percent of the public saying the war was going well, "but by September, that had dropped to 37 percent," Kohut says.

The pollster also says that Americans are "pretty equally divided" about whether to go along with McChrystal's request for tens of thousands of additional troops. And the president's approval ratings on Afghanistan have been falling steadily. An ABC poll had it at only 45 percent.

But Kohut says that "unlike the war in Iraq, people haven't given up in the rationale for this war. Only 37 percent, for example, say sending troops there in the first place was a mistake. Fifty-eight percent feel that way about Iraq." Kohut says about one-third of the public say they are following the war "very closely," and many say they feel guilty because I don't pay enough attention to it.

So, What Should Washington Do Next?

Strategy discussions within the Obama administration are focused on McChrystal's request for more troops, part of a counterinsurgency approach that calls for capturing territory from the Taliban and winning over the population by providing security and government services.

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells NPR that McChrystal's plan is the right one and that the administration should provide "at least 40,000 more troops" to carry it out.

But Thomas Hammes, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University, says that Afghanistan isn't worth the effort: "We've picked the least important country in the region to expend our resources on." Hammes, a retired Marine colonel, says the greater U.S. focus should be regional, with the most attention placed on Pakistan, in the form of aid to help that country build civil institutions.

There is a middle-ground option in this debate as well. Kerry says the goal should be to achieve " 'good enough' governance, basic sustainable economic development, and Afghan security forces capable enough that we can draw down our forces."

What Does Success Look Like?

An Afghanistan with a legitimate government. An Afghanistan that can stand on its own and fight. An Afghanistan where innocent people are not killed by suicide bombers. An Afghanistan that is part of a wider region at peace and enjoying prosperity.

NPR posed the question to diplomats, policymakers, regional experts, human rights workers in the country and the leaders and ordinary citizens of Afghanistan. These are their answers.

One Afghan parliamentarian says the world should look to the past — before Afghanistan was wracked by 30 years of invasions and war and Taliban rule — to imagine Afghanistan as it could be. "The high end, or the best case scenario of what we could hope for is what Afghanistan looked like prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979, when it was actually pretty peaceful and stable, and growing democratically and economically," says Shukria Barakzai.

It is a question being pondered now by President Obama as he decides what course to pursue in Afghanistan and whether to deploy more U.S. troops there.

Everyone would agree: Imagining the answer is easy; achieving the answer is difficult.

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