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Obama Faces Stark Choices on Afghanistan

President Barack Obama is expected to announce soon if he will further increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Obama administration faces some stark choices about how to deal with growing insecurity and political uncertainty in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The 2001 collapse of the Taliban government at the hands of U.S.-backed insurgents sent the Taliban and its al-Qaida guests scurrying for safer environments, primarily across the border in Pakistan. It also sparked a subsequent international effort to usher in a new democratic era in Afghanistan.

Eight years later, analysts say, the re-emergence of the Taliban from the shadows of Pakistan's tribal areas has caused those ambitious goals of nation-building to be relegated to secondary importance in some U.S. policymakers' offices. In recent Congressional testimony, Defense Secretary Robert Gates alluded to the scaled-down expectations and emphasis in Afghanistan between the Bush and Obama administrations.

"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, are too future-oriented, and that we need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years," he said.

At least three reviews of U.S. policy in Afghanistan have been or are being conducted within the Obama administration, as well as several independent studies and reports on broader international policies.

The co-author of a new RAND Corporation study on Afghanistan, Christine Fair, said the real key to halting the Afghan insurgency lies across the border in Pakistan. She argued that without Pakistan's strong cooperation in eliminating Taliban safe havens, the insurgents will continue to operate with impunity.

"My concern would be that this administration may overcorrect course and may make stabilizing Afghanistan the goal, not securing better cooperation across the board with Pakistan as the goal. We are in the situation where if we continue to make defeating and vanquishing the Taliban our objective in Afghanistan, we have built a structural conflict with Pakistan that is not solvable," she said.

As former CIA officer Michael Scheuer pointed out, the conflict is that Pakistan's internal political turmoil makes it increasingly difficult for Islamabad to cooperate with the United States.

"The Pakistanis have really about played out their string. When they have military forces now defending the perimeter of Peshawar and have continuous problems in keeping open the Khyber Pass and it appears they are losing the battle they have been fighting for more than a year up in the Swat Valley - those are very serious national security problems for Pakistan. And really the only way that they can solve those problems is to draw back on however they are helping us," he said.

The former European Union Special Representative to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, said the United States and its allies have placed too much reliance on Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Echoing the RAND Corporation study, he said there was too little effort into following up on commitments to build good governance in Afghanistan and tackling the corruption spawned by the lucrative drug trade.

"We have allowed corruption and misgovernance to continue. We have done nothing in terms of providing the monopoly of force to the government in Kabul. And we have tended to simply believe that by supporting one man that everything will be fine in Afghanistan," he said.

Vendrell believes the European allies can be induced to contribute more in both the civilian and military arena if the Obama administration consults them. But, he warned, getting more military commitments from the Europeans will not be easy.

"We are in a kind of chicken-and-egg argument. The Europeans feel they do not need to send more forces because the Americans can be relied to always send some more. And to the extent that the Americans send more, the Europeans feel that, well, sending 500 more soldiers is not going to make any difference," said Vendrell.

Spain has decided against sending any more troops to Afghanistan, but Germany is reported to be planning to send an additional 600 soldiers in the summer to help with security during the August presidential election.