Could America Still Lose in Afghanistan?

"The war is certainly not over," Collins added. "If anything, the shift to these JRTs reflects a changing threat, not the end of the threat."

The units could have the occasional backing of armed Afghan, American or allied military units, Collins said, adding, "They're not there to sort of combat the warlords — most of the important ones of whom are now government officials, working with the central government, some more closely than others."

Warlord Strategies

But some believe besides confronting Taliban and al Qaeda stragglers in Afghanistan, the U.S. must shift control of the provinces from warlords to Karzai's central Afghan government to ensure the government can survive.

Collins appeared to hint the United States may get to that problem soon.

"Right now, a lot of people are sort of hanging around with the local leaders, you know, keeping their Kalashnikovs well oiled, because, well, that's what they've done for the last 20 years," Collins said.

"And [they may say,] 'Oh, by the way, these guys don't pay much, but they pay something.' Or maybe, 'They don't pay at all, but they feed me.' And that situation is going to begin to be redressed in 2003."

Azoy won't "second guess American military policy [of allegedly paying warlords] during the early parts of the war," but believes the world now can displace the warlords. To do so, Azoy favors broadening the mandate of the international ISAF peacekeepers beyond Kabul — something the United States has appeared politically hesitant to approve.

"Let's say they put 500 or maybe even 1,000 troops in places like Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz," says Azoy, a 1970s-era U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan who now lives in Spain and writes a weekly Afghanistan column for the Bangor Daily News in Maine. "I think what you'd have there would be a force the local population could interact with and identify with, as opposed to the local warlords."

He adds that such a plan could shift not just power, but revenue to Karzai's government — because the government, not the warlords, would be able to control lucrative collection of customs duties in border regions.

Goodson agrees that, "At some point, you're going to have to ease the warlords out," and that contrary to American plans, "You can't do that with an Afghan army that doesn't exist."

He calls the JRTs, "a good idea. … [but] unfortunately, I think it would have been much better done earlier in the game," before the warlords "re-established."

Still, Barton, who specializes in post-conflict reconstruction, believes the U.S. shift to the JRTs is better than doing nothing.

"It's obviously not as good as the other [option of larger ISAF deployments] would be," he says. "But I think it will have an influence because these [JRT] people tend to deal in a freewheeling and straightforward fashion, which is what is needed. … These places need a good sheriff."

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