Obama’s biggest challenges in Afghanistan

President Obama’s war strategy began to take shape with his announcement last week that 17,000 additional U.S. troops are headed to Afghanistan. But the thorniest problems still await him: persuading militants to lay down their arms, coaxing help from allies and eliminating extremist havens on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Many officials believe Obama has one primary shot at remaking Washington’s war strategy and overhauling its policy in the region. The administration said last week that it would open that review, which is due in April, to Afghans, Pakistanis and European allies.

Administration officials hope that a deliberative, and inclusive, look can turn up new ideas, even for seemingly intractable problems.

“We have learned that Obama is not going to make policy on the fly,” said Karin von Hippel, a former United Nations and European Union conflict expert now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But the administration already has confronted a pair of unsettling realizations: America’s allies are unwilling to supply many additional troops, and a deal between Afghan authorities and militants, even the Taliban, is necessary for stability and peace.

The obstacles in Afghanistan are compounded by other well-known problems: a weak government, widespread public corruption and an economy that is bound to heroin. Meanwhile, U.S.-Afghan tensions have risen over civilian casualties.

Still, military commanders and strategy experts said the extra U.S. troops, used carefully, could help shift impressions in the country by making residents feel safer and militants more fearful.

“You can’t look like the likely loser of the war,” said Stephen Biddle, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar who has advised the military’s Middle East headquarters on Afghanistan. “No warlord is going to change sides to join the loser.”

In the wake of Obama’s troop deployment announcement, military officials began to sketch out how extra units would be used.

Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the additional troops would apply variations of counterinsurgency strategies that proved useful in areas in Iraq -- first studying an area, then clearing it of militants.

And Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, at NATO meetings in Poland last week, said troops then will establish a fixed presence in population centers. Previous military “clearing” operations have faltered after U.S. forces moved on to other areas.

As the U.S. learned in Iraq, such counterinsurgency campaigns are not painless. Violence in Iraq increased for months after the troop buildup began, as new units entered previously uncontested areas controlled by insurgents.

Laying down arms

But, as every review of Afghanistan has showed, there are major differences between that war and the one in Iraq. Crucial to the U.S. success in Iraq was the decision of the Sunni Arab minority to largely end its armed resistance, switch sides and aid the American war effort.

The U.S. hopes that it can also persuade some of Afghanistan’s militants to lay down their arms. Gates said again last week that eventual peace will require accommodation with militant groups.

“Ultimately, some sort of political reconciliation has to be part of the long-term solution for Afghanistan,” he said.

There is no civil war in Afghanistan. Opponents to the American presence include Pashtun dissidents, Taliban fighters and other extremists. The country does not face the sectarian rivalries that propelled Iraqi Sunnis toward accommodation.

That means the U.S. military will have to provide incentives for militant groups to stop fighting, Biddle said. That will require carrots -- such as promises of regional political power -- as well as sticks, including a threat of military action, he said.

More U.S. fighting

It also became clear last week that almost all of the new fighting will be done by American units.

There now are 38,000 U.S. troops in the country, along with 32,000 troops from other nations. At last week’s NATO meeting, 20 countries pledged additional troops, fighter jets and cargo planes for the Afghanistan elections this year.

But the troop commitments were small. The largest boost, 600, came from Germany.

Gates has said that the administration will not seek specific forms of help until after completion of its review. But the Pentagon has largely given up on prospects for new military commitments. Instead, Gates said the U.S. would push allied governments to send civilian expertise.

Given opposition by Europeans to military deployments, Gates said they could provide a valuable long-term contribution in the form of non-military advisors to help train Afghan officials and police and develop counter-narcotics programs.

However, even those commitments have been modest, with five countries last week offering additional police trainers, reconstruction teams and development aid.

But U.S. officials hope that if allies have a say in the strategy development, they are more likely to make commitments.

“Frankly, I hope that it may be easier for our allies to do that than significant troop increases, especially for the longer term,” Gates said last week before the NATO meeting.

Pakistani border

Perhaps the most difficult problem facing the administration strategy review is Pakistan’s volatile border region. Obama has called militant havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas his chief regional worry.

Under the Bush administration, U.S. strategy revolved around pressuring Pakistan to do more while striking suspected militants with missiles launched from Predator drones.

But the airstrikes, said Von Hippel, the former U.N. official, can be counterproductive, alienating residents.

“Even if they do kill some wanted terrorists, they are also used as a recruiting tool for a number of the militia-terrorist groups operating in the region,” she said.

One alternative, though difficult, Von Hippel said, would be to quietly increase aid efforts, work with the Pakistanis to improve services in the tribal regions and take steps to integrate them into the government.