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Analysts: Afghanistan to be Key Challenge for Obama Administration


One of the first foreign policy challenges facing the Obama administration will be how to proceed with the war in Afghanistan. Three former senior U.S. government officials talk about the situation in Afghanistan: Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger; former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

The United States has 32,000 troops in Afghanistan. 18,000 are part of "Operation Enduring Freedom" - the multinational coalition that ousted the Taliban from power in 2001. Those forces are now engaged in counter terrorism operations.

The rest of the U.S. contingent - 14,000 men and women - is part of the 50,000 strong force led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO has been operating in Afghanistan since 2003. Its objectives are to assist the Afghan government to rebuild and stabilize the country, train the Afghan army and police and fight insurgents in southern Afghanistan, the traditional home of the Taliban.

Now U.S. military officials say the United States may double the number of troops it has in Afghanistan next year. Those troops will join the NATO force in fighting a rising Taliban insurgency.

The ultimate decision on deployments to Afghanistan will be taken by President-elect Barack Obama after his inauguration January 20. During the presidential campaign, he said he would redeploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Lawrence Eagleburger

Former Secretary of State [1992] Lawrence Eagleburger said that is a bad idea.

"I find it difficult to conceive of a policy that withdraws from Iraq and increases our troops in Afghanistan. I agree with the second half of this proposal. But it doesn't seem to me to make a great deal of sense to be pulling them out of an area in which we are now on the path to success, at the same time that we are putting troops in Afghanistan. Frankly, I think the answer is continue what we are doing in Iraq and yes, increase our troop levels in Afghanistan and try to get other countries to contribute," said Eagleburger.

Mr. Obama has consistently said he would press other NATO countries - especially Germany - to contribute more troops to the war in Afghanistan.

James Schlesinger

But Eagleburger and others - including former Secretary of Defense [1973-75] James Schlesinger - believe that will not happen.

"The expectation that NATO will actually do its part, which to the Americans means send more forces, is likely to be disappointed and is likely, over time, to add to ill feelings," said Schlesinger.

Many experts, including Schlesinger, said ultimately, there is no military solution in Afghanistan.

"The situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. It is not clear that simply sending in more forces is going to reverse that," he said.

Brent Scowcroft

Former White House National Security Adviser [1974-77; 1989-93] Brent Scowcroft agreed.

"We need to realize that Afghanistan is not Iraq and my own sense is that there is no military solution for Afghanistan. The Russians had well over 150,000 troops there as I remember - and they were unsuccessful," he said.

The three former senior U.S. government officials believe the international community must increase its efforts in helping the Afghan government set up stable government institutions.

Brent Scowcroft said that's where the Europeans can help.

"What the Europeans can contribute, and what's badly needed in Afghanistan, is help on the civil side. The European Union is very skilled in - like the new members of the European Union - helping governments modernize, helping them put in judicial systems, administrative systems. That's what Afghanistan badly needs. And the Europeans can make a disproportionate contribution there to make up for their less than wholehearted military contribution," he said.

Scowcroft, Eagleburger and Schlesinger agreed that the path to a stable and secure Afghanistan lies through economic development, good governance and the rule of law. But all of that can only be achieved with considerable help from the international community.