KABUL (Reuters) - Western leaders are reawakening to the reality of Afghanistan -- that it is famously unforgiving to foreign forces on its soil and claiming victory there depends on how you measure success.
There is now a gloomy chorus of acknowledgements that Taliban militants are spreading their influence, the government of President Hamid Karzai is ineffectual and corrupt and Western military efforts are disjointed and inadequately resourced.
A top U.N. envoy says attacks are at a six-year high and the senior Western military figure in Afghanistan has said his 64,000-strong force cannot protect 30 million Afghans, who face a rising tide of intimidation and brutal attacks.
Charges that the challenges are at their most severe since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 are being countered by warnings that despair will only hearten insurgents with the stomach for a long war that Western democracies lack.
Amid the woe, two elements stand out afresh -- Western ambitions for Afghanistan’s future are shrinking, and there is less dispute over the measures needed to succeed than there is over the political will to fund and implement them.
“The situation is quite difficult and verging on dire,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “(It’s) not as severe as Iraq once was, but I’d say we’re closer to losing than winning right now, given the trajectory we’re on.”
Outright defeat of the Taliban is no longer the goal. Nor do diplomats envisage a perfect democracy emerging from the rubble of three decades of war. The West will settle for military stability, sovereignty, sane government and a squeeze on drugs.
When a departing British commander said the war against the Taliban cannot be won, his remarks were dismissed as defeatist by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But Gates later said reconciliation with the Taliban was needed to end the conflict.
Policymakers are frustrated the Taliban were allowed to recover and relaunch their insurgency in 2005, and fearful that Western forces will get bogged down and chewed up in Afghanistan as British and Soviet forces were in the 19th and 20th centuries.
U.S. ground commander General David McKiernan has asked for 15,000 more American forces to add to 8,000 being sent next year to bolster his fighting strength. But European allies have been slow to increase their presence and fill equipment needs.
“We do need more resources applied by the international community here, not just military resources, but economic aid, social programs and government mentorship,” McKiernan told Reuters in an interview.
Experts agree that extra forces alone are not the answer. Breaking the downward spiral requires a combination of bolstering and reforming the government, tangible improvements in living standards for desperately poor Afghans and anti-drugs efforts.
None of these are easy or quick, and the egregious and stubborn narcotics-fueled corruption of Karzai’s government is just one of many tests of the tolerance and patience of aid donors.
“Progress is very uneven, it’s very slow. We are in a tough fight, it is going to take a long time,” said McKiernan.
Much hope is being pinned on a plethora of strategic reviews of the Afghanistan problem by the U.S. government and military.
But General David Petraeus, credited for innovative thinking that saved Iraq from civil war, has cautioned there will be no magic bullet for what the Washington Post reported him saying would be “the longest campaign of the long war.”
Petraeus takes charge of military strategy in the Middle East, Central and South Asia at the end of the month.
He is expected to try to fashion a package of integrated military, economic and diplomatic approaches to the broader region, recognizing peace will not come to Afghanistan without helping neighboring Pakistan end its own vicious insurgency.
Pakistani Pashtun fighters operate across the border and at home, securing safe havens for Afghan Pashtun Taliban within Pakistan, making Islamabad a crucial element in ending the war.
Cleaving the Afghan Taliban away from al Qaeda militant allies and reconciling them with the Kabul government is emerging as another leg of the U.S. regional strategy.
Clarity of approach is obscured by two electoral fights, in the United States and in Afghanistan.
Barack Obama and John McCain have both said Afghanistan will be a foreign policy priority if they win the U.S. presidency on November 4. Both have said they will commit extra troops but have differed on how much pressure to put on Pakistan.
“Senator Obama’s been making the argument that it is the central front in our fight against al Qaeda,” his senior foreign policy adviser, Denis McDonough, said of Afghanistan.
But real policy will not be created until next year.
“The election distorts things,” said Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute think tank. “Right now it is mostly political posturing on both sides, wanting to make sure they look tough ... and certainly not soft on terrorism.”
A major quandary the next U.S. president will face is whether to back Karzai, the increasingly unpopular Afghan president, who faces re-election later next year.
Karzai’s government is widely seen by policymakers and military commanders to be doing a poor job in improving the lives of ordinary Afghans, making it easier for the Taliban to persuade and intimidate disgruntled peasants into giving them allegiance.
But there are few obvious alternatives to Karzai, who already suffers from a widespread local perception he is a U.S. puppet.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and David Morgan in Washington, Simon Cameron-Moore in Islamabad, Luke Baker in London; Editing by Sean Maguire and John Chalmers
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