Things are not going well in the oft-forgotten main theater of the United States' war on terror.

Things are not going well in the oft-forgotten main theater of the United States' war on terror.


By many accounts, Afghanistan is an even more war-torn and divided country than it's been since the U.S.-led offensive that toppled the Taliban in 2001. Now insurgents are challenging the U.S.-backed government for supremacy - and may be making gains. This creates a host of problems that the incoming Obama administration cannot allow to persist or grow.


A report released last week by the United States Institute of Peace, an independent, nonpartisan group established by Congress during the Reagan era, details U.S. failures in Afghanistan over the last seven-plus years. In a nutshell, we only had short-term goals and lacked a cohesive strategy for turning the country around, while displaying little understanding of the workings of the factionalized country.


The result? A resurgent Taliban, which has gone from isolated pockets of control a few years ago to an insurgency that threatens as much as three-quarters of the country. Violence is high and expected to worsen into next year. We've had the highest number of American troop deaths since the 2001 invasion, with 151 members of the military killed in-theater last year. As the situation has gradually worsened, public opinion in NATO countries that have supplied troops to fight the insurgency has turned sharply against their mission.


To combat those problems, a troop surge, similar to the one that worked so effectively in Iraq, is planned - at least 20,000 troops, perhaps more, doubling the U.S. contingent by the end of the year and bolstering the 12,500 NATO troops there now. The U.S. commander in the region, Gen. David Petraeus, is talking up a "sustained, substantial" commitment to Afghanistan - moving beyond boots on the ground and incorporating rebuilding efforts.


Of course, there are concerns. A Soviet force of 100,000 couldn't win the country in the '70s and '80s, and they were opposed by some of the same fighters we face today - and that we armed then. But if we are going to make these efforts, we must resist the temptation to fight the last war. Rebuilding Iraq is vastly different from rebuilding Afghanistan. We treat the two countries interchangeably at our own peril.


Buying off Afghan tribal leaders and having the government pay to support "awakening councils" and local militias may have merit. Arguably that helped us turn the corner in Iraq when enough citizens made it clear they'd had enough of the insurgents. But there's also worry that in this case it could increase the violence. Some Afghans fear increased ethnic strife between Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks and others. At minimum the militias should be put on a tight leash to ensure they aren't being used to settle generations-old scores.


Meanwhile, we do appreciate the renewed focus on efforts to rebuild Afghanistan. It's often forgotten that Afghanistan has rarely been unified in modern history, with a record of weak leadership and poor infrastructure. So we must look beyond the next year and into the next generation by rebuilding (or building in the first place) Afghan institutions - strengthening the army and national police force, creating an economic and educational system. Any force there has to get serious about not just curtailing the drug trade but replacing fields of opium poppies with other viable crops. And the government needs reforms, both to reduce the rampant corruption and to instill confidence among the people.


Meanwhile, not everything is going swimmingly in Pakistan, either. Insurgents on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border threaten one of the main NATO supply routes there. More attention must be paid to an unstable Pakistan with porous borders and loose security that's been a haven for many Taliban and al-Qaeda. Petraeus and outgoing National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley agree that the fates of Afghanistan and Pakistan are intertwined and should be tackled together.


As for Obama, we hope that as he decides how to deal with Afghanistan he is able to spell out clear goals not just to the military and recovery agencies, but to the American people. It is crucial that we, our skeptical coalition partners and Afghans themselves have confidence in our efforts. Recent history has already shown why it's imperative that Afghanistan not remain an unstable playground for warlords and terrorists.


Peoria Journal Star