December 02, 2009

Article at Reuters

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SNAP ANALYSIS-Obama's Afghan plan vague on politics, development

WASHINGTON, Dec 1 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama has finally decided to back his military's request for more troops for Afghanistan but critics are certain to argue his strategy lacks a convincing civilian and political dimension.

* When General Stanley McChrystal set out his assessment of the Afghan conflict in August, he argued that focusing on force alone "misses the point entirely."

Insufficient measures to address the crisis of confidence in the Afghan government "will result in failure," he warned.

Obama, in his televised address on Tuesday, talked of a more effective civilian strategy as well as a stepped-up military effort, and he touched on the goals of promoting development and reducing corruption.

There were concrete steps too, like a dramatic acceleration in the training of Afghan security forces and focused assistance for agriculture, which accounts for a third of the economy. But is it enough?

* History shows that a large army alone is no guarantor of stability in Afghanistan, especially if the domestic forces and the central government that controls them are riven by factionalism and ethnic tensions.

The Soviet Union also tried to "Afghanize" the conflict, and President Mohammad Najibullah lasted longer than most people expected after Soviet troops withdrew, but ultimately his army melted away and his fate was sealed.

* The West was unable to guarantee a free and fair election in Afghanistan in August and is now left with a partner in President Hamid Karzai who many Afghans view as illegitimate and held in place by corrupt and brutal warlords.

Obama said support for Karzai's government would be "based on performance." Ineffective and corrupt officials should be held accountable.

But Karzai has called the West's bluff before and there is little sign of a strategy to promote political reconciliation after the election or establish a broad coalition government that might garner more widespread support.

* Polls show most Afghans believe poverty and unemployment are the main factors fueling the war. Unemployment is estimated at around 40 percent, while access to electricity is among the lowest in the world.

Obama talked of a "civilian surge" to accompany the military effort but was vague on specifics.

A bill to promote trade with Pakistan and Afghanistan remains stalled in the U.S. Congress, mired in a dispute over workers' rights enshrined in the legislation.

Some analysts argue that even this bill is hopelessly inadequate, with domestic lobby groups from unions to the textile industry standing in the way of the free trade that the South Asian region desperately needs.

* While Obama has given the generals most of what they asked for, some critics say the balance between military and civilian spending is badly skewed.

The U.S. government's aid arm, USAID, is budgeting for around $2 billion in annual development aid to Afghanistan. Compare that to spending on the military operation there, which will cost nearly $95 billion this fiscal year.

To make matters worse, much of the development assistance that has arrived so far, analysts say, has ended up in the hands of Western contractors or corrupt Afghan officials.

Afghans have an average life expectancy of just 43 years and some of the highest rates of illiteracy in the world. Ninety percent of women in rural areas cannot read.

By some calculations, the cost of each extra American soldier per year -- up to $1 million -- could build 20 schools.

So even if Obama's Afghanistan plan is solidly based on an "extended surge" of troops, the political and development legs of the plan look distinctly shakier.

* The final leg of the plan is diplomatic. Stability in Afghanistan is complicated by reports the Afghan Taliban is still being supported by elements from Pakistan's military spy agency, the ISI.

On Tuesday, Obama promised an effective and long-term partnership with Pakistan. But whether he can convince the Pakistanis to root out Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his cohorts, widely believed to be sheltering there, remains an open question.

Obama's earlier efforts to promote peace between India and Pakistan -- and so wean Pakistan away from long-standing ties with militant groups like the Taliban -- made little headway.

* Some prominent experts argue that nation-building along Western lines in Afghanistan is an illusory and impossible goal and should not even be attempted.

The White House says its strategy is not about nation-building but about a more limited goal -- denying sanctuary to al Qaeda and preventing a Taliban takeover.

But unless the political, economic and diplomatic legs of the plan are solid, disproportionally strengthening the military leg could prove counterproductive. (Editing by John O'Callaghan) (( ; +1 202 898 8300; Reuters Messaging: ))


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