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The Road Ahead in Afghanistan

Author: Greg Bruno
November 19, 2008

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As the war in Iraq appears to wind down, U.S. strategists are zeroing in on the "good war" (Stratfor), as the seven-year struggle for Afghanistan has been called. President-elect Barack Obama campaigned on plans to end the war in Iraq and bring U.S. more resources to this second front, a pledge he has continued post-election. "We will start executing a plan that draws down our troops" in Iraq as soon as the new administration takes office, Obama said in a November 16 interview with "60 Minutes" on CBS. Referring to problems in Afghanistan, Obama said: "We've got to shore up those efforts."

Yet injecting troops alone will not solve the Afghan puzzle, experts say. In a new interview with CFR.org, New York University's Barnett R. Rubin urges greater efforts to spur a political solution among Afghan's warring sides, and his call for a more regional approach appears to be under consideration by the incoming Obama administration. According to the Washington Post, Obama's plan could see the United States turn to neighbors like Iran for assistance, and negotiate with elements of the Taliban. Efforts are also underway to work with Afghan tribes to loosen the Taliban's grip on rural reaches of the country, especially in the east and southeast, as this new Backgrounder explains. But Afghanistan's neighbors are also seen as impediments to progress. Iran, for one, has been accused of supporting proxy attacks (Guardian) against coalition soldiers (though the level of Iranian involvement is unclear). In Pakistan, Taliban and al-Qaeda elements are regrouping and gaining strength, CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said on November 13. And attacks against coalition forces in northeast Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan have surged in recent months (RFE/RL), despite an increase in cross-border strikes (WashPost) by U.S. unmanned aerial drones.

A number of analysts also say the United States and the broad coalition of international actors in Afghanistan will have to vastly improve reconstruction efforts that have failed to resolve severe problems since the Taliban's ouster in 2001. Drought, poverty, and persistent unemployment (World Factbook) in one of the world's poorest countries now mix with a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda as chief concerns for the international community. Aid organizations are warning food shortages and early snows could leave as many as eight million Afghans starving this winter (IRIN) -- 30 percent of the population. Some observers now say famine will outpace violence as Afghanistan's top crisis in coming months. "Whatever the effect of insurgent violence on the UN-mandated mission in Afghanistan," the London-based Royal United Services Institute said in an October briefing, "it is widespread hunger and malnutrition that will place a greater obstacle in its progress."

There are signs of hope amid the gloomy forecast. Wheat (PDF) and fuel prices declined slightly in the first two weeks of November, signaling a possible reprieve for poor Afghans. Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, the country's finance minister, said at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund in October 2008 that an increase in government revenue and a jump in donor dollars is helping to stabilize his country (PDF). And yet significant political and social hurdles remain. President Hamid Karzai, widely seen as an ineffective administrator overseeing a corrupt government, has sought to counter such criticism in recent weeks by reshuffling his cabinet (IHT), moves that could position him for a reelection bid in late 2009. CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey says Washington may have to live with Karzai (IHT), simply because there isn't anyone better. Coalition members, meanwhile, are sounding increasingly wary. "2008 has been a tough year for UK forces and coalition forces," Britain's Defense Secretary John Hutton said on November 11 (AFP). "And with national elections in 2009, the coming 12 months are likely to be equally as tough."

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