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Going the Distance

What's more, several insurgent groups have a history of fighting one another. In the mid-1990s, the Taliban and forces loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar engaged in intense battles in southern and eastern Afghanistan. They also competed for funding and logistical support from Pakistan's main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI. After suffering repeated battlefield losses to the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan and being marginalized by the ISI, Hekmatyar fled to Iran in 1997.

Nevertheless, insurgent groups have waged an increasingly deadly war against international and Afghan forces. From 2007 to 2008, the level of violence increased 33 percent, the number of improvised explosive devices increased 27 percent and civilian deaths increased 46 percent, according to U.S. Defense Department estimates. Perhaps more telling, a recent Asia Foundation poll indicated that nearly two-thirds of Afghans say that they have "some fear" or "a lot of fear" when traveling from one part of Afghanistan to another.

U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan have often failed to take advantage of fissures across organizations, as well as between insurgent leaders and their fragile support bases. Also, the security challenges there don't stem from a strong insurgency but rather from a weak and ever more unpopular government. "It's a race to the bottom between the government and insurgents," one villager in the eastern city of Asadabad told me. Opinion polls show a growing belief that government officials have become more and more corrupt and are unable to deliver services or protect the public.

As Dennis C. Blair, the new director of national intelligence, acknowledged last week, "Kabul's inability to build effective, honest and loyal provincial and district-level institutions . . . erodes its popular legitimacy and increases the influence of local warlords and the Taliban." In short, the government's unpopularity has created a vacuum that is being filled by insurgent groups, all of which enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan.

Although U.S. government officials have become increasingly vocal about the need to undermine the insurgent safe haven in Pakistan, the bulk of recent U.S. unmanned Predator drone strikes and Pakistani operations have been in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of that country. They have targeted senior leaders from al-Qaeda as well as other organizations, such as the Haqqani network, who share a safe haven in the tribal areas.

But there have been virtually no U.S. or Pakistani operations in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, currently home to the Taliban's core leadership. U.S. and NATO estimates indicate that the inner shura is located in the vicinity of the dusty town of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, where senior Taliban officials gathered after fleeing Afghanistan in 2001. Here, the Taliban have subdivided into a range of political, military, religious and other committees to help provide strategic guidance to a fractured insurgency.

Yet the Taliban have been left alone in Quetta. There have been no Pakistani operations such as the ones in the Bajaur and Mohmand tribal regions, where Pakistani army and paramilitary forces have razed houses and destroyed tunnels in an effort to uproot local militants. Nor have U.S. cross-border strikes targeted the key insurgent headquarters. Successful operations will require better protection of the Afghan population and more effective disruption of safe havens such as Quetta.

The Afghanistan war is not intractable and has not yet reached a tipping point. There are no easy solutions to the conflict. But a better understanding of the insurgency, the differences among its various factions and their fragile support bases -- and a strategy that can exploit these vulnerabilities -- might keep the United States from following so many earlier occupiers into the Afghan graveyard.

Seth G. Jones, author of the forthcoming book "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan," is a political scientist with the Rand Corp.

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