TAMPA - Almost nine years into the war in Afghanistan, there's still no guarantee of success or even much agreement on how to achieve it.
That was the often gloomy take of experts meeting Wednesday at the start of a three-day symposium on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the University of South Florida.
"I'm a pessimist about where we are now, where we've been and where we're going," said Thomas Johnson, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "In April, Afghanistan will replace Vietnam as the longest U.S. conflict, and there's still debate about what the desired end state is."
In the keynote speech, Ronald Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, said the "simplest definition" of success in Afghanistan would be a government that had popular support and could sustain itself without dependence on foreign troops.
But that goal could be in jeopardy, he warned, if the Obama administration pushes too fast for social and political changes and sticks to the idea of starting troop withdrawals in just 18 months.
"The lack of realism in the U.S. is leading to demands in Afghanistan that are not only unrealistic but may be dangerous," said Neumann, who served from 2005 to 2007 under the Bush administration.
"To expect that the fourth-poorest nation on earth, with high illiteracy and an education system being rebuilt from near total destruction will produce an effective and efficient government in another year or two is wishful thinking."
Organizers stressed that the conference has particular relevance to the Tampa Bay area because the area is home to U.S. Central Command, which has been directing the war in Afghanistan since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Some 121,000 American and NATO forces are now in the country. A St. Petersburg Marine was among the most recent to be killed there, as monthly death totals routinely exceed those in Iraq.
A major reason the war has dragged on so long is that the Taliban, though ousted from power in 2001 and disliked by 94 percent of Afghans, have stepped into the vacuum left by a weak, corrupt central government headed by President Hamid Karzai.
In Marja, a town in southern Helmand Province, "the local population was used to no contact with President Karzai's government, and the Taliban had emerged as a provider of at least some services even though some of their methods are barbaric," said Kevin McGurgan, former deputy head of NATO's provincial reconstruction team in Helmand.
"The Taliban need to be out-governed - not just outgunned," he said.
This winter, U.S. forces launched a major offensive to rout the Taliban from Marja, resulting in an Afghan flag flying over the town for the first time in years. But an even bigger challenge may be holding cleared areas.
To help tamp down the insurgency, Karzai has pushed for "reconciliation" with some Taliban leaders. It's a strategy unlikely to succeed, said Johnson, of the Naval College.
"It's a mistake to think of the Taliban as just insurgents - I think that the ones that really matter are jihadists," he said. "Much more so than is recognized in the (Washington) Beltway, is that people are joining the Taliban for ideological reasons."
As foreign troops start to pull out, Afghans will bear a bigger responsibility for protecting themselves. But the experts disagreed on whether to expand the national army to 260,000 troops - as President Barack Obama has proposed at a cost of $20 billion - or get local tribal groups to help provide security.
"There's never going to be enough Afghan army, and who's going to pay for the Afghan army?" asked Arturo Munoz, a former CIA analyst and now a political scientist at the RAND Corp. "NATO and the U.S. are not going to be there forever but you know who's going to be there forever? The tribes."
However, Neumann, the former ambassador, said the army already enjoys considerable respect and has performed "reasonably well." Tribal groups, on the other hand, have historically fought among themselves, contributing to the instability and chaos that have plagued Afghanistan for decades.
"I think we're building on sand if we're trying to build a major security situation on local forces," Neumann warned.
The most sobering presentation was by Larry Goodson, a professor at the U.S. Army War College. He noted the many parallels between what the Soviets were doing eight years into their occupation of Afghanistan - notorious as the "graveyard of empires" - and what the United States and its allies are doing today.
In the late '80s, the Soviets were trying to strike at cross-border sanctuaries in Pakistan, pursue reconciliation with insurgents, strengthen Afghan security forces and control population centers.
"It was a good strategy," Goodson said, "and the Soviets lost. I think we're losing in Afghanistan."