The hottest foreign policy issue in the US these days is its Afghanistan policy. This is not surprising considering the gradual winding down of the US involvement in Iraq and the growing US presence in Afghanistan against the background of the intensification of the Taliban insurgency and the mounting US casualties. President Barack Obama has reiterated that the US will remove all its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 and "for America, the Iraq war will end." As for Afghanistan, however, the prospect is of increasing US military, political and economic involvement in the foreseeable future. Taking into account the additional 21000 troops already committed by the Obama Administration, the US troop presence in Afghanistan would increase to 78,000 by the middle of 2010 boosting the total coalition troop level to 100,000 approximately. Total US spending in Afghanistan will soon exceed that in Iraq - $65 billion versus $61 billion in the fiscal year 2010 budget request. Despite the growing US presence in Afghanistan, the latest reports indicate that the war is not going the US way. Consequently there is growing congressional and public anxiety about the US strategy in Afghanistan. According to a recent poll in the US, 42 percent of the respondents thought that the US was not winning the war in Afghanistan, 40 percent were not sure, and only 18 percent were sure of victory. There is growing scepticism about the sustainability of the war effort in Afghanistan if the situation does not take a turn for the better for the US within a year. According to a recent paper produced by the US Center for a New American Security, the Taliban now have a "heavy presence" across approximately three-quarters of Afghanistan's nearly 400 districts, up from nearly one-half only one year ago. The coalition and the US casualties in Afghanistan in 2009 have risen sharply as compared with earlier years. As of August 25, the coalition casualties were estimated to be 295 in 2009 as against 294 in the whole of 2008. August 2009 has been reportedly the deadliest month for the US troops claiming 45 lives. The year 2008 saw 3276 IED incidents, an increase of 45 percent over 2007. There were 828 IED incidents in July 2009 alone, the highest level in any month since the start of the war in 2001. There are increasing signs that the US is also losing the war for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The result is that the coalition forces are increasingly seen as an occupation army more than anything else by the vast majority of the Afghan people. What has gone wrong in Afghanistan from the US point of view? Plenty, one would say. Former President Bush set an ambitious goal for the US in Afghanistan in these words: "We have a strategic interest and I believe a moral interest in a prosperous and peaceful democratic Afghanistan, and no matter how long it takes, we will help the people of Afghanistan succeed." However, the resources that the Bush Administration allocated for the fulfilment of the task were not commensurate with the ambitious nature of the goal of nation rebuilding that it had set for itself. This was partly due to the inadequate understanding of the complexity of the task, engendered undoubtedly by the easy American victory in overthrowing the Taliban regime, and partly because the Bush Administration was fully consumed subsequently in the quagmire of the Iraq war. In contrast, President Obama has set for himself a more modest goal. According to him, the mission of the US troops in Afghanistan is "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies." Obama has allocated more resources and manpower to Afghanistan to rectify the earlier neglect of this critical issue in practical terms by the Bush Administration. An upcoming assessment of the US strategy by General Stanley McChrystal, the new US commander in Afghanistan, may lead to the deployment of additional troops in 2010. However, the US Afghanistan policy continues to suffer from serious shortcomings which have the potential to derail it and lead to its ultimate defeat. First and foremost, the US in its effort to defeat Al-Qaeda and restore peace in Afghanistan has over-emphasised the military over the political instruments of policy and paid insufficient attention to winning the hearts and minds of the people of this war torn country. The coalition forces have shown scant regard for the cultural sensitivities of the Afghans, the tribal and conservative character of the Afghan society, and the ethnic rivalries which bedevil the task of pacification in Afghanistan. There are stories of American and British soldiers barging into Pushtun women quarters at night. Misdirected US air strikes, which have on several occasions destroyed wedding parties and killed sleeping villagers, have enraged the Afghans. According to the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, of 2118 total civilian casualties last year, 828 were caused by coalition and Afghan government forces. (The comparable figure for 2007 was 615). Increasing number of civilian casualties at the hands of the coalition forces could not have endeared them to the Afghan people, especially to the Pushtuns, constituting about 50 percent of the Afghan population of 30 million, who consider vengeance as a matter of honour and the appropriate way of seeking justice. Casual detention and mistreatment of thousands of Afghans have also turned them against the coalition forces. The tendency of the US and other Western countries and their forces to look at the Afghan society through the prism of their own cultural values seems to have backfired and alienated a large section of the Afghan people. In Afghanistan, the tribal and ethnic loyalties outweigh the national considerations. While overthrowing the government of the Taliban, who were mostly Pushtun, the US forces allied themselves with the Northern Alliance composed of non-Pushtun communities like Tajiks and Uzbeks. In the subsequent military operations against the Taliban, the US forces were again seen by the vast majority of the Pustuns as the allies of the Northern Alliance and non-Pustun communities including Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks. The result is the alienation of most of the Pushtuns in Afghanistan. The US has not made any serious attempt to meet the concerns of the Pushtuns with a view to reintegrating them in the mainstream of Afghan politics. Instead it has placed reliance primarily on the use of force to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan. The US has also misjudged the armed conflict in Afghanistan as the result of external inspiration and support, and has failed to recognise its indigenous character. The focus, therefore, has been on the interdiction of external help to the Taliban through military action in Afghanistan and pressure on the government of Pakistan rather than on coming to grips with the indigenous roots of the armed conflict in Afghanistan. The fact of the matter is that the armed conflict in Afghanistan has destabilised Pakistan's tribal areas because of cross-border tribal links rather than Pakistan's tribal areas causing the armed conflict in Afghanistan. The reversal of the cause and effect relationship has distracted the US attention from the main task of finding a political solution of the armed conflict in Afghanistan instead of relying mainly on the use of force to subdue the insurgents. There are no signs that the Obama Administration's Afghanistan strategy recognises the imperative of a political approach in dealing with the situation in Afghanistan. Of course, even a political approach would require the judicious use of the military for its success. Ideally, the US, while continuing the fight against Al-Qaeda to overcome international terrorism, should open lines of communications with the Pushtun tribes and the moderate elements among the Taliban as well as other ethnic communities in Afghanistan with a view to evolving a new political dispensation in the country which is acceptable to all of them. It would also be necessary to have the endorsement of Afghanistan's neighbours, especially Pakistan and Iran, for the new political dispensation to restore durable peace in the country. Until this is done, the armed in Afghanistan will continue with its ebbs and flows, and peace in Afghanistan will remain an elusive goal. The writer is a retired ambassador E-mail: