The Afghanistan Study Group (a gathering of 46 foreign policy experts in the US) released its latest report on August 16 calling for review of the current US policies in Afghanistan. It notes that the war is costing America $100 billion annually which is seven times larger than Afghanistans Gross National Product of $14 billion; an anomaly which it suggests should end at the soonest possible. At the same time, Al-Qaeda is no longer seen as having significant presence in Afghanistan, with only some 400 hardcore Al-Qaeda members remaining in the Pak-Afghan region. On the other hand, the US military presence has come to be seen by the resistance as foreign military occupation. The solution is seen to be a negotiated resolution of the conflict which would reduce the influence of extremists more readily than military action. Specifically, the report makes the following suggestions: * Emphasise power sharing and political inclusion which should be designed to decentralise power and broaden the ethnic base of the Afghan army. * Downsize and eventually end military operations in southern Afghanistan and reduce the US military footprint which radicalises the Pashtuns and is an important aid for Taliban recruitment. * Focus security efforts on Al-Qaeda and the domestic security. * Encourage economic development. * Engage regional and global stakeholders to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability. The two basic security interests of the US in the region are defined as reducing the threat of successful terrorist attacks against it, emanating from Afghanistan, and in operational terms preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and sowing the seeds of instability in the region. Even with considerably reduced troop levels, a credible defence against a Taliban take-over is envisaged through support for local security forces, strategic use of air power and deployment in key cities without committing to an expensive and counterproductive counterinsurgency campaign in the south of the country. If power sharing and political inclusion is negotiated, it is hoped that the relevance of the Taliban, as an alternative to the Kabul regime, is likely to decline. The report is harshly critical of the current military strategy of a surge of troops. The comparison with Iraq is not considered relevant, since ethnic and sectarian fault lines in Afghanistan are far more complicated and tribal structures far more fragmented. Political reconciliation in Afghanistan will therefore have to proceed community by community. The report outlines the major deficiencies in the current US military efforts which are helping to fuel the insurgency. Besides, an expanded US presence has reinforced perceptions about the Americans as foreign occupiers. Religious extremists have used the US presence as an effective recruiting tool for their cause. More so, civilian causalities and collateral damage have led additional Afghans to take up arms. Successful counterinsurgency efforts also required an efficient local partner; however, President Hamid Karzai has failed to build a legitimate and minimally effective government. His re-election last year was marred by widespread fraud and President Karazi has been unable or unwilling to crackdown on corruption or rein in the warlords on which his government depends. In addition, the Afghan army and police remain unreliable, and the large Afghan security forces envisaged will cost more to maintain than the Afghan government can afford. The overall recommendations and directions of the report have significant merit and would hopefully encourage the US leaders to rethink the strategic issues at stake in Afghanistan, and help them understand why the current strategy is not working while offering a plausible alternative approach. By coincidence, the US National Security Archives have just released documents of the conversations of Lt Gen Mahmud Ahmed, former DG (ISI), with US officials before the war started, suggesting a political approach to the Taliban in order to isolate the extremists and work out some sort of national reconciliation. However, at that time - immediately after the 9/11 incident - the US was not prepared to listen to any political advice and was intent on playing the military card alone. Nearly nine years have passed and now the US has realised and acknowledged the reasonable advice given by Pakistan. The problem now would be to convince the Taliban to be equally flexible. It was a difficult enough task even when they were defeated and had lost their government. Thus, it would be nearly impossible when they are now under the impression that they have won the war. The Taliban were never very rational to begin with, and the signs of the US being prepared to negotiate are likely to strengthen the hand of the extremists. Bureaucratic inertia is much worse in the Taliban hierarchy compared to the sluggishness of the US administrative bureaucracy. President Karzais estimate that the negotiations would take about five years seems, therefore, to be a reasonable assessment of the difficulties involved in this process. The emphasis on economic development is also extremely important as Afghanistan continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world, and poverty has always been one of the main drivers for extremism in our region. However, given the experience of the last 10 years and the bureaucratic nature of US aid, it is difficult to see how matters can be made any better in this regard, unless there is a major surge in development aid. The inclusion of regional states in the diplomatic efforts for the neutrality of Afghanistan and regional stability also fits in with the Uzbek initiative of 6 + 3 (the neighbouring countries bordering Afghanistan + the US, Russia and NATO). Pakistan has always regarded this forum as an extremely effective mechanism for discussing Afghanistan and evolving a consensus solution, free from the Afghan efforts aimed at playing the countries against one another. The exclusion of India from the grouping might create minor diplomatic ripples, but seems to be a necessity given the current Indian effort to concentrate on its anti-Pakistan efforts in Afghanistan. The writer is a freelance columnist.