KABUL -- President Barack Obama is holding an uncertain hand in his high-stakes gamble in the fight against Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Weak partners in both countries and doubts about the speed of building up Afghan security forces raise questions about the strategy.
If all goes well, U.S. troops can begin heading home in July 2011, Obama said. The White House said Obama set this date to make sure Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government knows it has limited time to reform itself and take charge of security.
Yet nearly every step presents difficult challenges.
The threefold plan, unveiled Tuesday in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., calls for:
--Sending 30,000 U.S. reinforcements to try to reverse the Taliban's momentum and bolster Afghanistan's security forces within 18 months.
--An accelerated program to boost the notoriously weak and corrupt Afghan government.
--Partnership with Pakistan, where many al-Qaida figures, including Osama bin Laden, are thought to be hiding.
Key to a quick exit are the Afghan army and police. Afghan officials question whether 18 months is enough time for a complete handoff to security forces, whose combat capabilities are reduced by a primitive system to keep units well supplied with food, fuel and ammunition without NATO's help.
Training soldiers is only part of the challenge. Turning them into an effective, integrated fighting force is another.
Of the 90 Afghan army battalions, the U.S. military considers only 1 in 3 capable of fighting without NATO support.
An estimated 90 percent of the recruits can't read or write when they join the army, making it difficult to operate complex military operations that require written orders and reports.
"The police are taking money from both sides, the government and the Taliban," said Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of the southern city of Kandahar. "When we have this kind of police and military, the Afghan problem won't be solved in 20 years."
Equally challenging is dealing with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Each is critical to success, and each presents different and nearly intractable problems.
With Afghanistan, the goal is to rid the government of corruption, including links to drug trafficking, and to bolster its ability to deliver services to its citizens, a necessary step to win popular support.
Training enough civil servants to run a government extending from Kabul to remote villages and towns nationwide will take time and resources.
In Pakistan, the challenge of building an effective partnership has been dogged by a spike in anti-Americanism led by elements of the security forces and increasing doubts over the stability of the weak, civilian government.
Since 2001, the U.S. has given the Pakistani army billions of dollars to try to get it to fight Islamic militants along the Afghan border.
While the army has taken on the Pakistan Taliban, it has not gone after Afghan Taliban leaders who base their operations in the lawless border region.
Many Western officials and analysts believe Pakistan is playing off both sides -- accepting U.S. funds to crack down on Pakistani militants while tolerating the Afghan Taliban in the expectation that the radical movement will take power in Afghanistan once the Americans withdraw.
Shaun Gregory, an expert on Pakistani security at the University of Bradford in Britain, said the Pakistanis will take note of Obama's pledge to start bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan in July 2011.
"The Pakistanis are smart enough to read the signals coming out of Washington," Gregory said. "It seems to me that the army's longer-term strategy of broadly backing the Afghan Taliban is paying off now. They have their tails up."