Q+A-New US strategy in Afghanistan runs into old problems

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON, May 10 (BestGrowthStock) – President Barack Obama’s new
strategy in Afghanistan is advancing in line with a tight
timetable but progress is uneven and could be threatened by
deep-rooted problems readily acknowledged by the Pentagon.

Those include a fully entrenched Taliban enemy, reluctance
of allies to commit enough trainers to instruct Afghan forces,
rampant Afghan corruption and a lack of legitimacy of President
Hamid Karzai’s government.

Here are some questions and answers about U.S. strategy in
Afghanistan and the main obstacles ahead, expected to be key
discussion points for Karzai’s visit to Washington this week.

IS THE TROOP ‘SURGE’ ON TRACK?

Yes. More than half of the 30,000 additional forces pledged
by Obama in December have arrived in Afghanistan and the rest
are expected to be in place by the end of August.

The extra U.S. troops are central to a campaign to gain
full control of Kandahar, southern Afghanistan’s largest city
and the spiritual home of the Taliban movement.

The U.S. military hopes to deliver a victory in Kandahar
when the Obama administration reviews progress in the war in
December. Obama plans to start drawing down forces in July
2011.

HAVE THE EXTRA FORCES HURT THE TALIBAN?

That is not clear. The surge has put the Taliban under
increased pressure, most notably with a February offensive to
take the city of Marjah in southern Afghanistan. A top Defense
Department official said the Taliban was losing momentum.

But even the Pentagon acknowledges the Taliban saw 2009 as
its strongest year to date. A Pentagon report released last
week said the Taliban’s reach was still expanding in
Afghanistan and it is increasingly able to launch
sophisticated, deadly attacks.

No U.S. official is yet prepared to say momentum has
shifted in the nearly nine-year-old war.

ARE ALLIES CONTRIBUTING MORE TROOPS?

Yes, but allies are not moving quickly enough for the U.S.
timetable. This has been a particular worry given the need to
quickly ramp up the size of Afghan forces to prepare for an
eventual handover.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, concerned about a lack
of trainers from allies, recently decided to deploy an
additional 850 U.S. trainers to Afghanistan. That is a
temporary deployment due to end by September and should not
take the “surge” above 30,000.

IS THE U.S. MEETING TRAINING GOALS?

The Afghan National Army counted 112,779 troops by the end
of March, above the target for that month of 112,700. The
Afghan National Police totaled 102,138, above a goal of
99,261.

Longer-term goals for the army are 134,000 by October 2010
and 171,600 by October 2011. Goals for the police are 109,000
by October 2010 and 134,000 by October 2011.

There are risks to those larger goals. The Afghan army
lacks qualified officers, who require much more training than
new recruits — no small task in a nation with soaring
illiteracy rates. There is greater concern over the police
force, still considered to be largely untrained, corrupt and 15
percent of which test positive for drug use.

ANY PROGRESS ON CORRUPTION?

The U.S. military is deeply concerned about a perceived
lack of legitimacy by the Afghan government.

Gains on the battlefield securing towns and cities for the
Afghan state are not expected to be sustainable if the
population opposes the Kabul-based government. This is a core
principle of the counter-insurgency strategy backed by the
Obama administration.

A Pentagon report released to Congress this month said the
political will to tackle corruption “remains doubtful.” The
Pentagon also said the population only supported Karzai’s
government in 29 of the 121 Afghan districts considered most
strategically important in the war.

ARE THERE FEWER CIVILIAN DEATHS?

The Pentagon believes accidental killings of civilians pose
one of the greatest risks to U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and
the top U.S. and NATO commander has sought to limit the number
of casualties.

But high-profile incidents still happen regularly and the
Pentagon has acknowledged that NATO forces killed 49 civilians
between October and March.

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(Editing by Sue Pleming and Chris Wilson)

Q+A-New US strategy in Afghanistan runs into old problems