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Asia Crisis

SNAP ANALYSIS-Obama aims for less with more in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, March 26 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama plans to send thousands of troops to train Afghan security forces as part of a new war strategy that will focus U.S. efforts on destroying safe havens for al Qaeda militants and rolling back the Taliban insurgency.

Here are some key implications of the new strategy:

* By stating that the main mission is to target al Qaeda, Obama is playing down more ambitious goals embraced by his predecessor, George W. Bush, and other NATO leaders.

They declared at a summit in April last year that their aim in Afghanistan was to help "build an enduring stable, secure, prosperous and democratic state, respectful of human rights and free from the threat of terrorism."

* Although the administration appears to be aiming for less, its new strategy accepts it will have to devote more troops, money and resources to achieve even that goal.

Obama will send 4,000 troops by this autumn to train Afghan forces, on top of 17,000 troops whose deployments he approved in February. That will bring the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to about 60,000, in addition to more than 30,000 troops from U.S. allies, mainly NATO nations.

The cost of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan is expected to rise 60 percent from the current $2 billion a month.

* The extra deployments will add to strains on the U.S. military, at least in the short term.

Although Obama has ordered about 100,000 troops to withdraw from Iraq by August next year, the bulk of that pullout is not expected until after Iraqi elections at the end of this year.

* Many of the ideas presented in the strategy are not new. The administration says the Afghan war was neglected under Bush and is betting that an increase in resources and focus will make existing ideas more effective.

An expansion of the Afghan security forces is already under way and the administration does not appear to be increasing the target size for the Afghan army and police for the moment.

Similarly, officials have long spoken of trying to exploit fractures in the Taliban movement and peeling off "foot soldiers" motivated by money rather than ideology.

* The administration's plans to engage Russia, China, Iran and India are bold but far from guaranteed to be successful. Cooperation on Afghanistan risks becoming a bargaining chip in debates with Russia over European missile defense or with Tehran over Iran's nuclear program.

* If the administration stresses its focus on combating al Qaeda too much, it risks exacerbating Afghans' fears that the West is not interested in their welfare and will abandon them. That could play into the hands of the Taliban.

* The administration's pledge to send "hundreds" more civilians to help build the capacity of Afghan authorities to provide essential services for their citizens will be widely welcomed but the details will be important.

Analysts say such services -- everything from running water to a functioning justice system -- are vital to get Afghans to side with their government rather than the Taliban.

But it is open to question whether an increase of only a few hundred civilians will give those efforts a major boost.

* Initial descriptions of the new strategy leave many questions about Pakistan unanswered.

Many experts believe the nuclear-armed country's instability and its al Qaeda safe havens present a far greater threat to U.S. national security than Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have yet to prove they can persuade the Pakistani military to fully embrace counter-insurgency operations against militants.

Officials have not said whether attacks on suspected militants by CIA drones will be stepped up. The administration never officially acknowledges the strikes and they are unpopular in Pakistan. U.S. officials say they have played a key role in weakening al Qaeda. (Editing by Peter Cooney)

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