Some questions and answers about the Afghanistan war, the U.S. strategy and the choices facing a president who already has doubled the...

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WASHINGTON — Some questions and answers about the Afghanistan war, the U.S. strategy and the choices facing a president who already has doubled the number of Americans fighting in Afghanistan since taking office:

Q: Why is the United States still fighting in Afghanistan?

A: President Obama, like former President George W. Bush before him, calls Afghanistan a vital bulwark against the spread of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks. The actual war, however, pits allied forces against the potent remnants of the ousted Taliban, allied insurgents, criminal gangs and warlord networks.

Q: Why has the war gone on so long?

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A: The war began a few weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. U.S. and international forces quickly overran the Taliban government that had sheltered bin Laden and his network. Despite early military successes, the continued presence of U.S. forces and a heavy commitment by the NATO alliance, the Taliban regrouped. After the Iraq war began in 2003, Afghanistan became the No. 2 priority for the United States. The Taliban-led insurgency hardened in 2006 and 2007, but NATO refused to greatly expand its fighting force despite U.S. pressure. By 2008, the insurgency controlled significant territory and the war stalemated.

Q: What role does the U.S. play?

A: The United States is the largest contributor to an international coalition fighting in a dirt-poor country with rudimentary infrastructure and a weak central government beset by corruption. Obama’s strategy emphasizes nonmilitary support for Afghanistan and the protection of Afghan civilians brutalized by the Taliban and drug lords.

Q: Why can’t an alliance of rich countries with powerful armies finish off an irregular force of insurgents?

A: The Taliban-led insurgency has proved resilient and cunning, and Afghanistan’s terrain and climate make it a difficult place to fight a war. The Taliban are less of an army than a religious and cultural movement, with some public support in a conservative tribal society. The insurgents recruit, co-opt and pay off locals. They hide among civilians and use classic guerrilla ambush tactics. Above all, the insurgents know the terrain, customs and language of a country notoriously inhospitable to foreign invaders.

Q: If the war is supposed to be about al-Qaida, why aren’t we fighting them?

A: They moved. Bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida leaders are presumed to be hiding across the border in Pakistan, in a mountainous region where the U.S.-supported government in Islamabad has little control. The U.S. strategy is predicated on the notion that al-Qaida would return if insurgents prevail.

Q: So why don’t we go after al-Qaida in Pakistan instead?

A: Pakistan doesn’t want that kind of war, and Pakistan is a sovereign country. The population is overwhelmingly opposed to any U.S. military presence on its soil, and analysts say the fragile civilian-led government would crumble if it was seen as endorsing a cross-border war.

Q: How much longer will the Afghan war continue?

A: Military and outside analysts generally say the war could only be won with tens of thousands more forces — both foreign and Afghan — and a sustained campaign lasting perhaps two to four more years. The Obama administration has been vague about how long it expects to stay, but Democrats in Congress could hasten a U.S. exit. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has called for a timeline, and other leading Democrats are demanding more accountability from the Afghan government. Obama approved 21,000 additional U.S. forces this year as part of a revamped counterinsurgency strategy, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is expected to soon ask for more.

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