KABUL – President Barack Obama is holding an uncertain hand in his high-stakes gamble in the fight against Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Weak partners in both countries, doubts about the speed of building up Afghan security forces and allies reluctant to commit themselves wholeheartedly to the battle all raise questions about the strategy.
If all goes well, U.S. troops can begin heading home in July 2011, Obama said. The White House says Obama set this date to make sure Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government knows it has limited time to reform itself and take charge of security.
Yet nearly every step presents difficult challenges — problems that festered over eight years of international neglect after the Bush administration shifted its attention from Afghanistan to Iraq once the U.S.-led invasion of 2001 had ousted the Taliban from power.
The threefold plan, unveiled Tuesday during a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., calls for:
• Sending 30,000 U.S. reinforcements to reverse the Taliban's momentum and bolster Afghanistan's security forces within 18 months.
• An accelerated program to boost the notoriously weak and corrupt Afghan government.
• Partnership with Pakistan, where many al-Qaida figures including Osama bin Laden are believed hiding.
The NATO chief says America's European partners will contribute more than 5,000 new troops to the international force in Afghanistan, which currently consists of 70,000 U.S. troops and about 30,000 other NATO-led personnel. Nevertheless, most of the pledges have come in small numbers. European powers like France praised Obama's speech but remained silent on offering new troops.
Even with greater support, both Afghanistan and Pakistan are led by weak governments that lack the political power to meet some of America's goals.
Key to a quick exit are the Afghan army and police. Afghan officials themselves question whether 18 months is enough time for a complete handoff to security forces — whose combat capabilities are reduced by a primitive system to keep units well supplied with food, fuel and ammunition without NATO's help.
There are differences within the U.S. leadership itself over how large a force Afghanistan needs.
Current plans call for boosting Afghan forces to 134,000 army soldiers and 96,800 police by next October. The Afghan army currently numbers about 95,000 with another 93,000 police.
The top U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has recommended 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 policemen — a target he said would take at least four years to meet. The White House has not embraced the higher numbers — in part because of concern about the costs.
Afghan officials believe a 134,000-member army is too small and expressed doubt that the country's soldiers and police would be ready to defend the country in only 18 months.
Training individual soldiers is only part of the challenge. Turning them into an effective, integrated fighting force is another.
Of the 90 Afghan army battalions, the U.S. military considers only one in three capable of fighting without NATO support. An estimated 90 percent of the recruits can't read or write when they join the army, making it difficult to operate complex military operations that require written orders and reports.
"The police are taking money from both sides — the government and the Taliban," said Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of the southern city of Kandahar. "When we have this kind of police and military, the Afghan problem won't be solved in 20 years."
Equally challenging is dealing with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Each is critical to success, and each presents unique and nearly intractable problems.
With Afghanistan, the goal is to rid the government of corruption, including links to drug trafficking, and to bolster its ability to deliver services to its citizens — a necessary step to win popular support. Training enough civil servants to run a government extending from Kabul to remote villages and towns nationwide will take time and resources.
Salaries are so low — $60 a month for many district administrators — that the government has trouble attracting talented people who won't take bribes.
In Pakistan, the challenge of building an effective partnership has been dogged by a spike in anti-Americanism led by elements of the security forces and increasing doubts over the stability of the weak, civilian government.
Since 2001, the U.S. has given the Pakistani army billions of dollars to try to get it to fight Islamic militants along the Afghan border. Starting last year, the U.S. began a sustained program of covert missile strikes against militant targets close to the border.
The results have been mixed. Militancy has spread throughout the northwest and is slowly creeping into the nuclear-armed country's heartland. Stung by the rise in attacks, the military has moved forcefully over the last year into several regions close to the Afghan border.
While the army has taken on the Pakistan Taliban, it has failed to go after Afghan Taliban leaders who base their operations in the lawless border region.
Many Western officials and analysts believe Pakistan is playing off both sides — accepting U.S. funds to crack down on Pakistani militants while tolerating the Afghan Taliban in the expectation that the radical movement will take power in Afghanistan once the Americans withdraw.
Shaun Gregory, an expert on Pakistani security at the University of Bradford in Britain, said the Pakistanis will take note of Obama's pledge to start bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan in July 2011.
"The Pakistanis are smart enough to read the signals coming out of Washington," Gregory said. "It seems to me that the army's longer-term strategy of broadly backing the Afghan Taliban is paying off now. They have their tails up."
Over the last year, a succession of U.S. officials has traveled to Islamabad to stress that Washington is looking for a long-term relationship with Pakistan, not only one focused on the war against militants. But the stinging reaction to the centerpiece policy of that effort — a $7.5 billion aid program — was a reminder of the difficulties it faces.
The army, angry at strings attached to part of the aid that called for more civilian oversight into its affairs, criticized the government. So did large sections of the media and opposition, using it as a stick to beat President Asif Ali Zardari, who is backed by the U.S. but is desperately unpopular at home.
Last month, Zardari was forced to abandon an effort to get parliament to approve a decree issued in 2007 by his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, granting him and thousands of others immunity from a host of corruption and criminal charges. The end of the amnesty last weekend has now raised the possibility of legal challenges to Zardari's rule.
"Pakistan has never faced a terrorist quagmire as it has faced in the recent years, and combatting terrorism requires political and economic stability," said Ishtiaq Ahmad, professor of international relations. "A political crisis is the last thing that we can afford at this stage."
Well aware of America's problems, the Afghan Taliban scoffed at Obama's plan, saying it would only lead to more American casualties.
"Throughout the history of Afghanistan, the Afghans have not been subjugated through deceits, ploys ... and military might of the foreigners," the Taliban said in a statement released in English. "Therefore, the reinforcement of the American troops and other tactics will not have impact."
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