By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, Nov 3 (Reuters) - U.S. war aims in Afghanistan that call for the defeat of the Taliban and a strong central government in Kabul have become increasingly unrealistic in the face of growing violence and corruption.
Even as the Bush administration and U.S. military look for ways to improve strategy, analysts say the next U.S. president could best curb soaring violence through political reconciliation backed by regional states including Iran and India.
"I don’t think we ever really set realistic expectations. Things have been going badly in Afghanistan since 2005 and so we appear to be getting further away from our goals. It’s probably time for us to examine them," said Samuel Brannen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The future of U.S. policy on Afghanistan will soon be in the hands of a new president, as the United States votes on Tuesday on whether to send Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain to the White House in January.
Both men have said they would focus more strongly on defeating the Taliban and send more troops. Obama, who leads in the polls, has said he also would favor negotiations with some Afghan tribes who have backed the Taliban up to now.
Meanwhile, experts see further need for fundamental change in U.S. thinking.
Brent Scowcroft, former President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, is especially concerned about the U.S. push for a highly centralized government in Kabul, a sharp departure from Afghanistan’s history of tribal governance.
"What I’m afraid of is that by trying to create a unified central government, we’re not going to be able to succeed. And in failing, we may fail more catastrophically than if we try, however imperfectly, to form a coalition of governing groups," he said in an interview.
"We ought to see if we can use the natural forces of Afghanistan to create a structure we can live with," Scowcroft told Reuters. "It’s been a basically tribal or warlord society presided over by a loosely governing entity."
U.S. and NATO forces face growing violence from Taliban insurgents aided by al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan. Rampant corruption has eroded the credibility of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government.
Top U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, complain that the West has not coordinated adequate development assistance.
A Western military presence that already includes 32,000 U.S. troops also needs well over 10,000 additional forces at a time when top administration officials concede that some NATO allies are looking for the exit.
Despite all that, U.S. military officials say the objectives assigned to them by policymakers — the defeat of the Taliban and creation of stability to foster political and economic development — remain firmly in place.
"Our goals for success in Afghanistan have not changed. They’re not at all being watered down, despite the urging of some defeatists out there," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
But the debate has already turned to talk of reconciliation with some Taliban members and enhanced diplomatic efforts to reach a solution involving Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Reconciliation could help the majority of Afghans who live in rural villages by empowering local authorities, a prospect U.S. military officials say they have begun to examine as a way to counter Taliban influence outside larger towns and cities.
U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, credited with helping save Iraq from all-out civil war, has made reconciliation and regional involvement major themes of a review of U.S. military policy in Afghanistan that he is overseeing as the new head of U.S. Central Command, a military official said.
That means U.S. expectations have already begun to change, said Barnett Rubin, an expert at New York University.
"I think it’s pretty much a consensus view now that they don’t expect to have a complete military victory," said Rubin.
Some analysts have called for Washington to engage Iran, which has made investments in Afghanistan since the Taliban was ousted and has an interest in stability there. Some say Tehran might welcome cooperation against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Others argue India could prove even more important to stabilizing Afghanistan.
If Washington could help India and Pakistan address their differences over the disputed Kashmir region, analysts say, it could defuse an issue that has long dominated Pakistani security fears and fueled Islamist militancy inside Pakistan.
"Ultimately, you are never going to deal with Pakistan’s preoccupation with Afghanistan if you don’t deal with its fundamental psychological insecurity, which is India," said J. Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace. (Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in Jacksonville, Florida, editing by David Storey)