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US Faces Challenges in Afghanistan

When U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Afghanistan this week, he highlighted the challenges of building stability in the country at a time when violence is rising sharply.

The Governor of Afghanistan's Kunar Province, Fazlullah Wahidi, briefed U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he visited the U.S. Forward Operating Base in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday (9/17).

"The bridges and the roads, that's the most important for security, because Kunar is divided by this river. You see, the river is there, along the road," said Wahidi who enthusiastically told Gates about American efforts to improve roads, schools and other services.

At a table ringed mostly by military officers, the conversation focused on civilian issues. “Like Dan had mentioned about the package of economic development - all these things, we like to do the balanced development, not the unbalanced development," said Wahidi.

But at the same time, Governor Wahidi reported he has asked the U.S. commander in the area for daily helicopter patrols along one key stretch of new road to help prevent insurgents from placing roadside bombs.

Interlocking Problems

The meeting illustrated the complexity of the interlocking problems Secretary Gates is trying to tackle - security, economic development and improved governance.

With a shortage of U.S. diplomats and aid officials, the military is taking on some civilian duties. Speaking of the importance of road-building, one American general said "asphalt is ammunition" in defeating the insurgency.

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, was frank with reporters about how his mission is progressing.

"In some places in Afghanistan, there is improving security. In some places, there's improving governance. In some places there's improving prosperity. There are very few places where all three of those come together," said McKiernan.

The general says "winning" in Afghanistan may involve scaling back on the goal of establishing a Western-style democracy. He says a more realistic objective is what he calls "viable governance".

"Viable governance that meets the people's expectations. It's not going to be [like] Peoria, Illinois," said McKiernan.

The general wants about 20,000 more U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan. He says he will need them on a sustained basis, not for a year-long surge like the one that just ended in Iraq. That would bring the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to more than 50,000.

A Change in the Strategy?

Officials acknowledge that it will be difficult to provide the additional troops from an already strained U.S. military, at least until some can be withdrawn from Iraq. And generals there cautioned against doing that too quickly when Secretary Gates visited Baghdad at the beginning of the week. They don't want to risk hard-won security improvements that they say are still "fragile".

Until recently, U.S. officials were content to treat Afghanistan as what came to be known as an "economy of force" mission, in which they do what they can with available forces. Now there is an increased sense of urgency, with violence up 30 percent in the past year, talk of more troops and possibly some changes in strategy.

But at a news conference in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul this week, Secretary Gates noted that the United States and NATO have added substantial forces in recent years, and he made this prediction: "In addition to the increased forces that the international partners have agreed to send, we will be sending additional forces in 2009. And my expectation is that we will be able to meet the requirements that the commanders have here during the course of 2009."

Secretary Gates probably will not be in office after January 20, when a new president is inaugurated in Washington. But both major presidential candidates - John McCain and Barack Obama - have indicated they also want to do as much as possible to bring the violence in Afghanistan under control.

Building New Security Forces

A big part of that involves building the country's new security forces, a project supervised by U.S. Army Major General Robert Cone.

"I'm pretty optimistic about what can happen here. Although I will tell you, every day is three steps forward, one step back, one step sideways, two steps forward, two steps back. I mean, that's the way it is in this country," says Cone.

Afghanistan's Army is growing about as quickly as U.S. officials believe it possibly can - increasing from about 39,000 to some 65,000 in just the past year, with a similar-sized increase planned for the coming year.

General Cone says the Afghan Army already is the most respected institution in the country. But he would not make any prediction about when it would be ready to maintain security with fewer international forces. He says there is even some concern among top Afghan leaders that the Army could become too popular.

General Cone says the police are far behind in their development, and he notes he has been waiting several months for 23,000 more foreign trainers. The general says some local Afghan leaders may not even want a strong police force because it would threaten their illicit activities.

There is a part of the Afghanistan situation that is largely outside the control of U.S. officials and military commanders. That is Pakistan's inability to prevent insurgents and terrorists from having safe havens in its tribal areas. But Defense Secretary Gates says there is reason for hope on that front.

"What we have seen and have been pleased about, in recent weeks, is to see the Pakistani Army once again putting pressure in this area," said Secretary Gates. "And it is my hope that we can work closely with the Pakistanis to prevent this from being a safe haven that threatens both Afghanistan and a democratic Pakistan."

But officials say the effort still has a long way to go, and the top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, made another in a series of visits to Pakistan this week to press officials to do more.

Meanwhile, the United States faces still another problem in Afghanistan, this one of its own making - a series of recent air strikes in which dozens of Afghan civilians have been accidentally killed.

When Secretary Gates visited a combat air support headquarters at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul, he said U.S. commanders and pilots take their duty to protect civilians seriously. But he added it is possible that more can be done.

"We've worked at it hard and we're going to work at it even harder - take another look at it, see if there's even more we can do to limit innocent folks who get killed when we're going after our enemies," said Gates.

More U.S. Ground Forces

Officials say bringing in more U.S. troops would help because then air strikes to play a lesser role in securing Afghanistan's huge and largely rugged land area, where they say insurgents target civilians, hide among them to try to entice U.S. forces to cause civilian casualties and then exaggerate the results. Secretary Gates has offered his "sincere condolences and personal regrets," and pledged to speed payments to bereaved families.

U.S. officials speak of "a balancing act" as they try to provide forces and other resources to Iraq and Afghanistan, and as they try to give more rest and training to U.S. troops -- many of whom have spent three of the last five years on combat deployments. The urgency and difficulty of the task were on display this week as Defense Secretary Gates visited what officials call the "still fragile" situation in Iraq and the complex and increasingly urgent one in Afghanistan.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.