Analysis: Administration weighs Afghan options

(AP) – As President Barack Obama weighs thrusting America deeper into the conflict in Afghanistan with perhaps thousands more combat troops, his administration has yet to answer a question at the core of his strategy for turning around the deteriorating war: How long will it last?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top Pentagon officials have said they need to show clear progress against the insurgents within 12 to 18 months to firm up public confidence in the war effort. But they are not venturing firm estimates of how long it will take to achieve their central goal of defeating al-Qaida and the Taliban in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

The reason for their fuzzy outlook is simple: This is not a conventional conflict, where one side can plant a flag and declare victory. It’s not even a strictly military problem.

Instead, the U.S. is undertaking a complex counterinsurgency campaign that may never have a defined ending. The U.S.-led effort to stabilize Afghanistan confronts a vexing South Asian brew of political, economic, social and security problems that some experts believe will take decades to sort out.

If, as expected, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, tells Obama in coming weeks that he needs more troops the president will have to consider not just the cost in blood and treasure but also the wisdom – and political viability – of escalating a stalemated conflict with no end in sight.

Many in Congress are growing more skeptical, following years of approving ever-growing war chests for Iraq.

During the administration of President George W. Bush, when the spotlight was mainly on Iraq, the open-ended nature of the battle for Afghanistan caused relatively little public angst in the U.S. But now, with the U.S. commitment expanding, casualties rising and Afghansecurity deteriorating, public opinion is souring.

The war is nearly eight years old and by some estimates the tide is turning against U.S. and allied forces. A revitalized Taliban resistance has gained ground in some parts of Afghanistan, and prospects for political stability may have been dealt a serious blow late last month by a fraud-tainted Afghan presidential election.

The American public is showing signs of war exhaustion, after electing a president who promised he would end the Iraq war and then, shortly after taking office, approved requests to dispatch another 21,000 troops to Afghanistan. Opinion polls show declining support for the war in Afghanistan and growing doubt that it can be won, even as the U.S. combat death toll hit a wartime monthly high in August.

A CNN poll conducted in the final four days of August said 42 percent supported the war and 57 opposed it. That compared to 53 percent supporting and 46 percent opposing in early April, days after Obama announced a new war strategy and vowed to provide resources to the war effort in ways his predecessor did not.

Some have cited the turnaround in Iraqi security, following the “surge” of troops in 2007-08, as evidence that putting more U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan could produce similarly positive results.

Ryan Crocker, who was sent to Kabul to reopen the U.S. Embassy after the fall of the Taliban and was ambassador to Baghdad during the troop surge in Iraq, cautioned in a Newsweek essay last week that the Obama administration needs to be careful what lessons it draws from the Iraq experience.

“Relentless internal conflict is not endemic in Iraq. In Afghanistan it is,” Crocker wrote.

Afghan patience with the U.S. also seems to be wearing thin. Ashraf Haidari, political counselor at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, wrote in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post on Monday that the United States and its partners “have yet to commit seriously” to Afghanistan’s future.

That’s a theme that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stressed recently. He wrote, for example, in the current issue of Joint Forces Quarterly, published by National Defense University, that he is often asked by Afghans and Pakistanis if the U.S. will stick with them.

“I tell them that we will,” Mullen wrote.

Mullen didn’t mention any timetable, but his remark about a long-term commitment amazed Bing West, a retired Marine and author who has traveled widely with American troops in Afghanistan this year.

“If that’s what he means then we’re going to have American soldiers, the way we’re going, in Afghanistan for another 10 or 20 years,” West said in a telephone interview.

In West’s view, Mullen and other senior U.S. leaders have not offered a realistic assessment of what it will take to succeed in Afghanistan.

Bush was assailed by congressional Democrats for not providing a firm timetable for leaving Iraq. So far lawmakers from Obama’s own party are not putting up the same resistance to an open-ended Afghan conflict, but in recent days foreign policy leaders like Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., have gone public with new doubts.

When Gates was asked recently how long he thought American combat forces would be fighting in Afghanistan he said the answer was unknowable – “too many variables to predict.” Pressed further, he conceded that America’s nonmilitary role in Afghanistan “probably is a decades-long enterprise.”

“We want to give them the capacity to protect their own security as well as the security of other nations around the world from threats emanating from Afghanistan,” Gates explained in an interview with the al-Jazeera television network. “And then we’ll be gone.”

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