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Afghan situation is dire, report warns

Times Staff Writer

The international effort to stabilize Afghanistan is faltering and urgently needs thousands of additional U.S. and coalition troops, an influential group of American diplomatic and military experts concluded in a report issued Wednesday.

The independent study finds that the Taliban, which two years ago was largely viewed as a defeated movement, has been able to infiltrate and control sizable parts of southern and southeastern Afghanistan, leading to widespread disillusionment among Afghans with the mission.

“The prospect of again losing significant parts of Afghanistan to the forces of Islamic extremists has moved from the improbable to the possible,” the study says, warning that Afghanistan could revert to a “failed state.”

The report is critical of nearly every governmental and international organization involved in Afghanistan, including the Bush administration, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, calling their efforts inadequate, poorly coordinated and occasionally self-defeating.

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Although many of the criticisms have been made before, the new study is spearheaded by some of the same experts and organizations involved in the Iraq Study Group, the influential panel whose report a year ago put intense pressure on the Bush administration to change course in Iraq.

The co-chairmen of the group are former NATO commander and retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, and Thomas R. Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. The two men have significant bipartisan standing in U.S. foreign policy circles, which could give the study a wider and more authoritative reach than other assessments.

Jones and Pickering are scheduled to testify on Afghanistan before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today.

The Afghanistan Study Group’s criticisms of the Bush administration focus on the military mission. It welcomes the Pentagon’s recent decision to send an additional 3,200 Marines, increasing the U.S. presence to about 28,000 troops. But it says the Pentagon should send additional troops as soon as they are freed from duty in Iraq.

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“Afghanistan is larger in size and population than Iraq but has far fewer national and foreign troops,” the report says.

The study calls for a change in the way the U.S. funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since the start of the Iraq war, the two conflicts have been linked in funding considerations. The study group says they should be “decoupled” so that Afghanistan is not overshadowed by Iraq.

“While the fates of the two countries are connected -- and a failure in Iraq would influence Afghanistan and vice versa -- tying together Afghanistan and Iraq also creates the false impression that they consist of the same mission, while in reality the challenges in these countries differ significantly,” the report says.

The panel also calls on the White House to appoint a special envoy to Afghanistan to coordinate various efforts.

Although the Bush administration did not directly challenge the report’s findings Wednesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack insisted that Afghanistan remains much better off today than before the Taliban was ousted six years ago.

“While Afghanistan of today has a variety of different challenges, it is not Afghanistan of 2001,” McCormack said at a news conference.

“They’ve made a lot of progress,” he said. “They have a ways to go.”

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The report is equally critical of several NATO allies and notes that polls have shown that majorities in all coalition countries except Britain favor withdrawal of troops.

Although the report mostly shies away from singling out allies by name, it recommends that Germany be stripped of its responsibility for training the Afghan police and called for the United States to take more of that responsibility.

It also advises the U.S. and NATO militaries to shift away from conventional warfare and toward a more sophisticated counterinsurgency campaign, warning that increasing civilian casualties are angering Afghans.

The findings echo recent remarks by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other senior Pentagon officials, who have said that NATO forces in southern Afghanistan have not been properly trained in counterinsurgency techniques.

The report also cites the U.S. standoff with Iran as a hindrance to progress in securing Afghanistan’s borders, and urges that the United Nations name an international coordinator to talk to Tehran.

Paddy Ashdown, the British politician who was postwar coordinator in Bosnia-Herzegovina, recently withdrew his name from consideration for a similar role as the U.N.'s Afghan envoy, citing objections from Karzai’s government.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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