ARIF AYUB Following General Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional US troops in Afghanistan, there was considerable debate in the US on the pros and cons of the increase in troop level. It was expected therefore that President Barack Obama would offer an out-of-box , visionary solution which would help resolve the impasse the US finds itself in, after eight years of fruitless efforts. However, the president succumbed to the beltway bureaucracy and, instead, there was a rhetorical, staff solution with more of the same on level of troops, development assistance and building up of Afghan institutions. There was no explanation of how the failed policies of the last eight years could suddenly bring fruitful results in 18 months by a military and civilian surge. Since opinion was evenly divided between an increase in troops and a withdrawal, the president decided to do both; somewhat like driving a car while pressing both the brake and accelerator. While there is an emphasis on the dangers of Al-Qaeda lurking in these regions, there is a failure to explain how the internationally supported counter terrorism operation ended up as a counter insurgency operation. There was also no mention at all about the ethnic problems in Afghanistan and the fact that the insurgency has entered the phase of a civil war between the majority Pashtun population and their overlords in Kabul. Considerable emphasis is placed on building up the Afghan government and defence forces without acknowledgement of the recent flawed elections or the fact that the Afghan defence forces are part of the problem due to their skewed ethnic composition. There is a perfunctory reference to the corruption and drug trade with no concrete solution to these problems. The 18 month timeframe for withdrawal is expected to increase the corruption as the cadres cash in their last chance. The civilian surge is also mentioned without any detail on how it would be different from what has been done in the last eight years, which has not contributed in any significant way to Afghan development, despite the expenditure of $10 billion. The worst mistake in the present strategy is the announcement of the withdrawal of forces after 18 months. This timetable is completely arbitrary and not linked to any success benchmarks and would nullify the marginally beneficial effects of the military and civilian surge. The Taliban now need to only wait for the withdrawal period to commence and, in the meantime, conserve their forces. The Afghan imbroglio is not given to easy solutions or short timetables. In Afghanistan one has to think in terms of generations not election timetables, particularly when there is the current lack of clarity of objectives and lack of direction on policies. The lumping of the Afghan Taliban with the Pakistan Taliban is also incorrect, for while their objectives might be similar, the Taliban in Pakistan have hardly any public support and have therefore resorted to assassination of their political opponents and indiscriminate bombings to create terror amongst the civilian population. On the other hand, the Taliban in Afghanistan have now been fighting for 30 years, after the Soviet invasion, or nearly 40 years, if Daud's coup is counted as the start of the Islamist insurgency. They have been able to do so only with the support of the local population, through their network of madrassahs and alliances with tribal leaders in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan . The link with Al-Qaeda needs to be broken, but the current strategy seems to be a dubious way of going about it. The favourable part of President Obama's speech on Afghanistan is the British advice to accept the ground realities and start the handover of districts to the complete charge of Afghan officials. While this could be done smoothly in the non-Pashtun areas, it would create considerable problems in the Pashtun areas where the Taliban and their allies dominate. It would remain to be seen how the US negotiations with the Taliban proceed, but the initial signs are not very encouraging and the Taliban seem to have been emboldened by the announcement of the withdrawal date. The key to the speech was the surge in troops, which President Obama said would be sufficient to secure key population centres. However, this is not where the problem lies and most of the insurgency is in the rural and mountainous regions and the current surge is insufficient to deal with the spread and extent of the insurgency. The US has fallen into the classic trap of insurgencies. If they spread their forces throughout the country they would be vulnerable to attacks, while, if they concentrate their forces they would be unable to occupy the territory .The Taliban are, therefore, likely to continue with their policy of extending their small scale attacks in order to stretch, while withdrawing to their sanctuaries when attacks are launched against them. Time is always on the side of the guerrillas and the Taliban have plenty of experience at this level. The emphasis on Pakistan, while useful, is limited by the fact that it fails to take into account Pakistan's concerns about Indian machinations in Afghanistan, something which General McChrystal specifically mentioned in his report. The overall assessment is quite pessimistic and the next 18 months are likely to see an increase in fighting as both sides try to expand their control before the withdrawal commences. The conclusion, unfortunately, is that for the time being there is no light at the end of the Afghan tunnel. Hopefully, the forthcoming London conference would be able to evolve an international consensus more favourable to peace, security and development in Afghanistan. The writer is a former ambassador.