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Analysis: Thinking small in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama probably will scale back U.S. ambitions for troubled Afghanistan to redefine victory in a war that his closest military and foreign affairs advisers say cannot be won on the battlefield.
Image: Soldiers with U.S. Army's 6-4 Cavalry take up hilltop position during patrol near Combat Outpost Keating in eastern Afghanistan
Soldiers with the U.S. Army's 6-4 Cavalry take up a hilltop position during a patrol near Combat Outpost Keating in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday.Bob Strong / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama probably will scale back U.S. ambitions for troubled Afghanistan to redefine victory in a war that his closest military and foreign affairs advisers say cannot be won on the battlefield.

Even before a planned doubling of U.S. forces in Afghanistan this year, the new administration is lowering its sights and lowering expectations. Although general agreement exists that the United States will be in Afghanistan for years to come, the new focus is on how to show even small security gains and development progress quickly.

"That's clearly the message I'm getting is, 'what are the near-term goals going to be?'" Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said when asked about Obama's agenda for Afghanistan.

Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has recently suggested the Bush administration overreached in Afghanistan, are scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate and House Armed Services committees.

Higher U.S. military casualties possible
Vice President Joe Biden said the world has not done enough to provide economic, political and military resources to Afghanistan, and the United States and its allies lack a coherent strategy. The result is a country backsliding into Taliban control, Biden said.

He warned of higher U.S. military casualties as the Obama administration adds up to 30,000 troops to the Afghan war, where the Taliban is resurgent and where critics say the Bush administration was slow to respond.

"The bottom line here is we've inherited a real mess," Biden told CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "We're about to go in and try to essentially reclaim territory that's been effectively lost."

The request for more troops from military commanders was endorsed by the Bush administration and seconded by the Obama team. The new troops, which will nearly double the size of the U.S. fighting force, are a hedge against further deterioration while the administration comes up with a more coherent, long-term strategy.

The new president is expected to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon this week, with both Afghanistan and Iraq on the agenda. The wars are closely linked because some of the troops Obama wants to send to Afghanistan are fighting in Iraq.

Obama has promised to refocus the U.S. military agenda away from what he considers a misbegotten war in Iraq, and last week he called Afghanistan and Pakistan the central front in the struggle against terror and extremism.

He has offered few specifics about how his approach would turn around a fight that Mullen, the nation's top military officer, says the United States is not winning.

A few things are becoming clear, however, and none more stark than the notion of what winning in desperately poor, decentralized and deeply traditional Afghanistan would look like.

Charity and development work
It is likely to be less about democracy and more about old-fashioned charity and development work. It will be measured by small, local gains in security and governance that give Afghans a reason to reject the efficiencies and protection offered by the Taliban insurgency.

Gates, a holdover from the administration of Republican President George W. Bush, suggested last week the previous administration had unrealistic ideas about what it could accomplish in Afghanistan.

That is a common criticism from outside analysts and one of the conclusions of an unreleased internal White House report prepared last year, so it was notable more for who was talking than for what was said.

"One of the points where I suspect both administrations come to the same conclusion is that the goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far into the future," Gates said during a Pentagon news conference.

"We need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years in terms of re-establishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al-Qaida, preventing the re-establishment of terrorism, better performance in terms of delivery of services to the people, some very concrete things."

Mullen added that "the right governance development in Afghanistan, along with the economic development" are essential. "Because, over time, without that, all the military troops in the world aren't going to make any difference."

Taliban stronger than ever
The Taliban are stronger now than at any point since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, which overthrew a Taliban government in Kabul and dismantled al-Qaida havens in the country. The Taliban regrouped with help from Islamic militants and tribal chiefs across the rugged border with Pakistan, and now control chunks of the east and south.

The insurgents are now fighting a modern version of an age-old war, relying on the classic insurgent tactics of ambush, assassination and anonymity to tie up a vastly superior U.S. and NATO force of some 60,000 spread over an anarchic country that sprawls from Iran to China.

Critics of the management of the war include Obama's new national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who last year warned that the United States risks losing "the forgotten war."

Gen. David Petraeus, who executed the successful U.S. security turnaround in Iraq two years ago, is the latest senior military leader to say that the war in Afghanistan will not be won militarily.

"One of the concepts we embraced in Iraq was recognition that you can't kill or capture your way out of a complex, industrial-strength insurgency," Petraeus said in an interview this month with Foreign Policy magazine. "The challenge in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq, is to figure out how to reduce substantially the numbers of those who have to be killed or captured."

Petraeus, who heads the U.S. Central Command, is completing a broad review of his entire region of responsibility, which includes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mullen's staff is also doing an Afghanistan study.

Deeper outreach to former enemies
Petraeus favors deeper outreach to former enemies, and has hinted he would like Iran's help in Afghanistan. The latitude he gets for that effort will be an early clue to the breadth of Obama's planned policy changes.

"They have very much signaled that their approach to dealing with the growing instability is to dramatically increase our resources," said J. Alexander Thier, an Afghanistan analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace who worked with Jones on last year's study.

Obama has hired a special troubleshooter for Afghanistan and Pakistan whose background is heavy on development and diplomacy. The announcement came at the State Department, the first agency Obama visited outside the White House, with not one military uniform in sight.

"This is a very difficult assignment, as we all know," envoy Richard Holbrooke said. "Nobody can say the war in Afghanistan has gone well."