Obama faces big challenges in Afghanistan

A020193310.jpgWASHINGTON (Reuters) – President-elect Barack Obama has pledged a new focus on the war in Afghanistan, including more U.S. troops and possible talks with the Taliban, but the challenges are daunting.

Taliban militants are spreading their influence, the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seen as ineffectual, Western military efforts are underfunded and poorly coordinated and Pakistan is widely criticized for not doing enough to fight militants in the tribal areas.

On the horizon are strategy reviews by Gen. David Petraeus, the overall commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Republican President George W. Bush’s White House and State Department, and a new National Intelligence Estimate.

The new Democratic president, who takes office in January, will have to take all of these reviews into account as they emerge in the coming months. Obama’s decisions will also be shaped by the mounds of classified intelligence he now has access to as well as other secret war plans.

“It is one thing to make promises or statements as a candidate — all of which are qualified — and quite another to come into actual office,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Presidents deal with realities. They don’t implement campaign pledges,” he said.

Obama’s transition team refused interview requests on the president-elect’s plans for Afghanistan, arguing there is only one president until Obama takes office on January 20, 2009.

But Obama has indicated he wants a more regional approach to tackling Afghanistan, pressing key player Pakistan to do more but also engaging India, Russia and possibly Iran.

Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said Obama was unlikely to make a sharp, quick break with the Bush administration’s current Afghanistan strategy and it was unclear what kind of a regional response he wanted.

For example, bringing in Iran on Afghanistan might be difficult while other issues such as Tehran’s nuclear programs are still not resolved.

TALIBAN TALKS?

In an interview with Time magazine, Obama suggested he was open to talks with more moderate Taliban leaders and others, as happened in Iraq where U.S. military commanders pushed for contacts with the Sunni Awakening movement.

“Whether there are those same opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored,” Obama told Time last month.

Petraeus, whose strategy in Iraq of talking to enemies is credited with helping turn the situation around, has made reconciliation and regional involvement a theme of his review of U.S. military policy in Afghanistan.

But experts say talking to the Taliban is fraught with problems and the United States must choose its moment.

“Until they (the Taliban and other militants) are under more pressure both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they will not have a strong incentive to negotiate seriously,” said Jim Dobbins of the RAND Corporation.

Afghanistan expert Karin von Hippel said any talks should be led by the Afghan government.

“The Obama team would hopefully work with the Afghan government to come up with a strategy that would be transparent and agreed by members of the international community,” said von Hippel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Vikram Singh, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said Obama would also have to put more pressure on Karzai to do a better job governing and to reach out to local tribal leaders and mullahs who found themselves trying to choose between the Taliban and the government.

Obama has said repeatedly the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban will be a top priority. He plans to send two or three more U.S. combat brigades to Afghanistan and convince the Europeans and others to put in more troops.

France, Germany, Britain, Canada, Spain, Australia and a host of others have troops in Afghanistan and Obama is expected to put pressure on them to get more boots on the ground.

Commanders in Afghanistan have already asked for at least three brigades — 12,000 to 15,000 troops — on top of the one expected in February and they are likely to push Obama for more. There are currently 31,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Obama will also have to tackle the splintered military structure in Afghanistan, with some experts pushing for a unified command under Petraeus.

Another tough decision is whether to continue missile strikes on suspected militants by pilotless U.S. aircraft in Pakistan or the cross-border raids that have been strongly protested by Pakistan.

“We can identify a whole range of bad guys which the Pakistanis cannot reach. I think they will try to do this in as a polite and non-provocative fashion as possible,” said Tellis.

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