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Obama Urged To Act Swiftly On Afghan Crisis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The incoming Barack Obama administration will inherit an urgent crisis in Afghanistan and must increase U.S. and NATO troop levels there while enlarging the Afghan army, a U.S. think tank recommended on December 18.

The security measures must be matched by efforts to build the rule of law and achieve sustained economic development in Afghanistan, and to boost security in neighboring Pakistan, the Washington-based Brookings Institution said.

The "memo to the president" by Brookings security expert Vanda Felbab-Brown painted a bleak picture of a growing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, an Al-Qaeda stronghold in that country's mountainous border with Pakistan and of troubling Pakistani political and economic weakness.

"A complete state failure in Pakistan would generate a grave and severe crisis, as would any serious military confrontation between India and Pakistan," said the memo.

"Across the border in Afghanistan, failure against the Taliban would indicate how limited the United States and the international community can be in helping countries achieve security and development," it said.

Obama, who takes office on January 20, vowed during his election campaign to boost U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, convince NATO allies to increase their troop contributions, and to press for better governance in Afghanistan.

There are 65,000 international troops in Afghanistan, including more than 30,000 from the United States, struggling to combat worsening insurgent violence.

Felbab-Brown wrote that Obama should step up counterinsurgency aid and training for the Pakistani military and undertake military action against major jihadist targets in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas only with great care to avoid civilian casualties.

Afghanistan needs U.S. help in expanding the Afghan National Army and reforming the Afghan National Police, said the memo, which urged targeting high-level drug traffickers.

The Obama administration should try to cultivate Afghan tribal leaders, but it would be a mistake to expect them to play a military role in the counterinsurgency. Beyond trying to demobilize individual fighters, efforts to negotiate with the Taliban "hold little promise of success," it said.

With promoting social and economic development critical to shoring up security and battling the opium trade, Obama's policy should bring improvements in infrastructure, irrigation, and microcredit and job creation, said the memo.

Last month's deadly attacks in Mumbai, India, blamed on Pakistan-based militants, will likely put any peace talks between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan on hold, but "it is critical that your administration help the two countries de-escalate the current tensions and avoid a military confrontation or a proxy war," wrote Felbab-Brown.