US President Barack Obama declared a clear-cut strategy with a three-pronged focus when he outlined his plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However, he has given his generals only 18 months to implement the plan before US troops start pulling out of Afghanistan, and an improvement in such a short space of time will be difficult to achieve, writes guest columnist Ahmed Rashid in Lahore.
Were Afghans left impressed by President Obama's speech?
"There are three core elements of our strategy - a military effort to create the conditions for a transition, a civilian surge that reinforces positive action, and an effective partnership with Pakistan,'' Mr Obama said.
The 30,000 US troops, enhanced by another 5,000 to 10,000 Nato troops, will arrive early next year in Afghanistan and stay until July 2011, when some US forces will start withdrawing after handing over to the Afghan security forces.
Mr Obama has given Gen Stanley McCrystal, the US and Nato commander in Kabul, more or less the numbers he wanted to beat back the Taliban from major population centres.
However, Mr Obama has given the general only 18 months to do the job - a Herculean if not impossible task when one considers the gains the Taliban have made in the past few years, and the feeble state of the Afghan government and army.
What Mr Obama could have said - instead of offering a date certain for withdrawal - was that in parallel with an improvement on the battlefield, a better performance by the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and greater co-operation from Pakistan, US forces could start withdrawing from 2011.
Instead, the US president has presumed that the situation will manifestly improve in the next 18 months - something that few in the region believe can happen.
Not a single Afghan army brigade is combat-ready
America's hopes rest on the Afghan National Army (ANA), which today numbers some 90,000 soldiers, taking charge.
However, after eight years not a single brigade is self-sufficient or combat-ready. The only charge the ANA has is of Kabul city, where thousands of Western troops are available for back-up.
Some 70% of current ANA recruits are illiterate and cannot read the simplest orders or be tasked with anything remotely sophisticated. The 93,000 police recruits are in even worse shape.
The US civilian surge will depend on how effective President Hamid Karzai's government will be in partnering international development aid.
After a fraudulent election, the dismal performance of the previous Karzai-led government and the short timeframe now available, it may be difficult to make Mr Karzai into an effective partner in the next 18 months.
Moreover, the Taliban may well be thinking that Mr Obama has given them just one more full fighting season - the spring and summer of 2010 - before the Americans start withdrawing. They may calculate to sit it out, keep their powder dry and try to capture power once the Americans start to leave.
Unfortunately, many Afghans and Pakistanis will doubt Mr Obama's promise of a long-term commitment to Pakistan and Afghanistan post-2011.
After all, the Americans have made similar commitments several times to both countries before - and instead people will only read the cut-out date.
Mr Obama's speech was short on detail.
There was no mention of what strategy the new US troops would implement - and no mention of the regional strategy, much promoted in Mr Obama's March speech, which would bring together Afghanistan's neighbours into a compact to help stabilise Afghanistan.
There was little on to what degree the US would help in development and rebuilding, while there was a marked silence on any mention of nation-building.
And even though British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has loudly proclaimed a list of benchmarks that the West would set for the Afghan government to fulfil, there was no mention of it by Mr Obama.
Mr Obama clearly spelt out to the Pakistanis that ''a safe haven for those high-level terrorists, whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear, cannot be tolerated''.
Mr Obama is trying to change the strategic calculations
This is a tough statement that will be echoed in European capitals in coming days, and Pakistan's attempts to fudge this issue are clearly no longer acceptable or believable.
One key factor in prolonging the Taliban insurgency has been the attitude of the Pakistan military, which is accused of allowing the Taliban sanctuary in the border regions of Pakistan-Afghanistan since 2002.
Does it suit the interests of some in Pakistan to abandon the Afghan Taliban now, when the worst-case scenario for Islamabad could be a future civil war in Afghanistan and massive border unrest for Pakistan?
The answer is presently unclear, even to the Americans.
Mr Obama is trying to change the strategic calculations for the Pakistan military by promising a package of desperately needed aid and development for Islamabad and a long-term commitment for Pakistan's security.
On the other hand, there is also a package of unstated threats.
The key to changing the Pakistan military's attitude is if the US is willing to bring pressure to bear on India to restart the stalled dialogue with Pakistan and ease tensions between the two arch-enemies.
When Mr Obama took office less than a year ago, there were only 32,000 US troops in Afghanistan. By next spring there will be 100,000.
Those troops will have to eliminate al-Qaeda, degrade the Taliban, stand up the ANA and police, provide the space and security for development and delivery of services to the Afghan people - and then get out.
It's a tall order and it may not all be achievable within the given time frame.
Ahmed Rashid is the author of the best-selling book Taliban and, most recently, of Descent into Chaos: How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
This debate is now closed. The following is a selection of your comments:
Let's eliminate the terror hubs, safe havens and networks within Pakistan, and make Pakistan stop the terrorists entering Afghanistan and then attacking Afghan civilians, Nato soldiers and Afghan Security Forces. If we cannot stop Pakistan from supporting the terror networks against Afghans, Indians and the world, then no surge in troops will help American and Nato to stabilise Afghanistan. It is time to take punitive actions against Pakistani elements of this equation
Waziland, Swazi & Swaziland
Having just returned from Afghanistan, I find President Obama's plan to be ill-conceived wishful thinking. As almost anyone there will tell you, including most US officials, stopping the insurgency depends on engaging disaffected and armed groups in the political process. Only a minority wants to destroy Afghanistan. The majority wants a role in running it; even if the West disagrees with their vision of the kind of country Afghanistan should be. The majority of non-politicised Afghans want to live free of threat from all sides, domestic and foreign. This is not about to happen under the new Obama strategy. Quite the opposite is more likely. By supporting Karzai's clearly discredited and unpopular regime, this "temporary surge" has surrendered any grounds for legitimacy in the eyes of most Afghans. Then there are the regional factors: how does the US realistically plan to reign in Islamabad's support for various extremists? Additionally, despite Obama's refreshing and necessary change in attitude towards Muslims and Islam, why should anyone believe Iran will help the US "succeed" by eliminating its involvement with the Shias of Afghanistan? In short, the one caution that Afghans repeated to me most often was, "Convince us with actions, not words". Unfortunately, in the final analysis, I expect Obama's planned actions to be as unconvincing as his speech.
Eran Fraenkel , Jakarta, Indonesia
Why is it our side always seems to get the illiterate, hard to train Afghanis, while the enemy's Afghan soldiers are quite competent?
J Smith, Chesterfield, USA
Ahmed Rashid either does not know what he is talking about or he is serving some vested interest. Part of tool by US/UK/India nexus to malign anything and everything about Pakistan. I will discount most of what he says as hopeless.
A Ahmad, Bahrain
All Afghans should see it as their duty to help the Taliban where possible, to rid their country of the foreign invaders and not be cooperating with them. How many Quislings are there in Afghanistan? We would not have cooperated with the Germans had they invaded the UK.
Awesome Geronimo, Leeds
History is replete with incursions by foreign armies over centuries and none have met any success because of people's resolve and close bonds among the tribes. Unless there is strong leadership direction to change the attitudes of these people, change through new efforts under the umbrella of foreign troops would just strengthen the resolves and bonds of those tribes. There was a lull of terrorist activities for past one year expecting the Obama government would start some dialogue with the tribal leadership as he stated in his speeches.
Ghulam Niazi, Mianwali, Pakistan
Afghanistan problem requires out-of-the-box thinking. The military surge will not do anything except creating more misery for our soldiers and Afghan civilians. We need to think about overall solution to Afghan problem that has been left unresolved for generations. We have a unique opportunity to resolve this issue permanently before it is too late. First we have to understand one fact: Afghanistan is not a country in modern sense and has never been one. It is composed of several independent tribes and government's writ has always been limited to a few large cities. We are trying to make it a stable modern state, which is bound to fail. The last election is an example of that. Afghanistan at least needs to be divided on the ethnic lines. Then these ethnic units should be united with neighbouring countries, which already have their ethnic brothers living there. For example, Uzbeks should cede to Uzbekistan, Pashtuns to Pakistan, Tajiks to Tajikistan, etc. (The Hazara area could potentially be given to Iran in exchange for elimination of their nuclear program, etc.) Then the onus will be on those countries to protect their new borders and people. Of course, we can provide monetary and logistical support to these countries to establish peace within their new borders, which also will be in their own interest. Since these countries already have significant population of these ethnicities, they understand their psyche, and are in a much better position to control and develop these areas. We see examples of it already. Pakistanis are doing well in fighting Pakistani Taliban but are not bothered by the Afghan Taliban because they do not consider it their problem. Once all Pashtun area is under their control, they will make sure it stays peaceful. Tajiks do not let an insurgency grow in their area either (there was some disturbance a few years back but they crushed it). Then we can leave with dignity and no more of our sons and daughters have to die there.
As I said before, we cannot make a civilised country out of an area that was never a country. Also, a loose federation of tribes with limited central government authority will always be a breeding ground for terrorism. If we really want to end the scourge of terrorism, we need to bring that area to become part of modern world and I do not see another better way except as I have described above. I would love to get comments and other proposals to resolve this issue permanently.
Let us ask ourselves a really easy question If international forces could not achieve this goal in eight years, how can they achieve it in 18 months.
It is difficult to believe it is not still George W Bush speaking, even harder to believe that Obama will collect a Nobel Peace Prize in a few days. Sending more foreign troops will, as always, only make matters worse, and the "problems" in Afghanistan and Pakistan are largely a direct consequence of Western meddling. The solution is simple: CRUSADERS OUT! And as for bringing the perpetrators of 11 September 2001 to justice, the entire former US administration is in the US and not hiding in Pakistan's tribal areas, or can Obama explain - how the twin towers collapsed? - what hit the Pentagon? - who stood NORAD down? etc etc etc. Khomeini was right all those years ago - America is the Great Satan.
Ibraheem Johansen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Is it not a way to save a loss of face for US in withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan? Is Mr Obama behaving like Mr Nixon? US withdrew from Vietnam after a defeat. This is a clear indication that US has lost the battle of Afghanistan. It wants to get out of the mess at any cost. Will it not be a acid test for PAKISTAN?
Gotya, Mumbai, India
It is simply a wastage of time commenting on anything Ahmed Rashid writes. Basically he says what the US/UK/India want to hear about us. Pakistan has lost more army men, policemen, civilians and suffered economic losses because of terrorism and no one has any right to doubt that!!! US and UK want Pakistan army to win the war that they along with all Nato assistance have almost lost. I would say, either clean up Afghanistan or leave the country if you want the situation to improve. How can it be right for Hillary Clinton to say that we should talk with tameable elements within Taliban, but Pakistan is expected to clearly mark them as enemies. Not to forget that after the US/UK leave, we will have to live with them side by side. This policy only favours destruction and India. Not acceptable.
The most important part of solving a problem is to define in clear and unambiguous terms. As long as this is referred to as an Af-Pak problem and an Af-Pak strategy, it's deemed to fail. This is a Pakistan problem and needs a Pakistan strategy. Till then it's mere beating round the bush. It's time to call a spade a spade and eradicate this cancer.
Sam Mukherjee, Yardley USA
As long as Taliban have good mentors, financial backers, logistical providers, military suppliers and medical carers in Pakistan plus all the madrassas in tribal region, pretty much Afghanistan is a lost cause.
Sid, Delhi, India
I am Afghan and Afghans will never accept foreign troops in their country. I think that Obama is dreaming about wining the war against Afghans in Afghanistan and our Afghan brothers in Pakistan. Even anti-Afghan forces in both Afghanistan and Pakistan are helping American to kill all Afghans. But as an Afghan I am sure that we will give Mr Obama the shame of losing the war against Afghans.