By Luke Baker
LONDON, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Afghanistan is entering its most critical phase since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, a leading think-tank said on Tuesday, with the risk that widening violence will mean planned elections cannot be held this year.
"The integrity of the whole international mission in Afghanistan is ... very substantially at stake," John Chipman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said as he unveiled the group’s 2009 global military outlook.
"Presidential elections are due to take place this year amid rising violence and with a government that is unable to exert its authority in the provinces.
"Against this background there is a risk that it will not be possible to hold elections, or voter turnout may be below the minimum necessary for the ballot to be valid."
Such is the insecurity throughout Afghanistan, particularly in the south and east, where the Taliban have increased their strength in the past year, that Afghan officials have been unable to set a date for the presidential poll.
It is expected to take place in late September, and would likely represent a referendum on the performance of President Hamid Karzai over the past five years if it is held. But even voter registration remains incomplete at this stage. [ID:nISL352434]
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates described Afghanistan on Tuesday as Washington’s "greatest military challenge right now".
The United States plans to send up to 20,000 extra troops to southern Afghanistan this year to help secure the election, and Britain is expected to increase its current deployment of 8,000 troops at least marginally to help bolster rural security.
But even with those extra resources, Chipman and other IISS analysts said the U.S.-NATO strategy in Afghanistan appeared insufficiently coordinated and there was little evidence that the Taliban-led insurgency was weakening seven years after the Islamist regime was driven out.
"In the face of a strengthening insurgency in Afghanistan, NATO has increasing problems in forging a common understanding of objectives for its mission," the institute said.
"Tensions within NATO over mission objectives have undermined the mission’s effectiveness, and a broader debate is under way over how the international community should define ‘success’ in Afghanistan."
European nations have 27,000 troops serving in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, while the United States currently has 33,000 troops in the country.
The numbers are relatively small given Afghanistan’s size -- a third larger than Iraq, where many more U.S. troops are based -- and its population of more than 32 million.
The IISS said NATO and U.S. troops were overtasked -- not only having to fight the Taliban and secure large areas of the country, but also tackle opium farming and the drugs trade -- making their mission all the less likely to succeed.
Looking at how progress might be made given the vast challenges, the think-tank suggested talks with the Taliban.
"Attempts to turn Taliban fighters away from the insurgency met with limited success," it said, referring to 2008. "Though in the long run this would seem essential to any solution to Afghanistan’s problems.
"So too (does) some form of dialogue with the Taliban." (Editing by Dominic Evans)