Ex-presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, visiting Afghanistan this week, predicted the situation there will get worse before it gets better, “just like the surge in Iraq was.”

Gen. David McKiernan, who commands U.S. and NATO troops there, foresees a “tough fight” next year. He is calling for increasing the U.S. troop strength in the country to 55-60,000 from the current 32,000, and keeping them there for the next four years. He is also urging NATO members to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, slated to continue in that position in the incoming Obama administration, said last week a new strategy to fight Islamic extremists will be a high priority for the new administration.

But in the war’s eighth year, observers warn that a “troop surge” won’t reverse Afghanistan’s slide into chaos, violence and poverty.

Last week September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, formed in the aftermath of the tragic 2001 attacks, released a briefing saying a military surge will only bring increased violence and the threat of a wider war, and calling for “a drastically revamped U.S. policy focused on diplomacy, negotiation, aid, reconstruction and international cooperation.” Their paper, “Afghanistan: Ending a failed military strategy,” is available at www.peaceful-tomorrows.org.

“The events of the past seven years show that the more U.S. and NATO troops that deploy to Afghanistan, the greater the violence against Afghan civilians and troops, and the greater the recruitment levels for insurgent fighters,” the report’s authors said. They called for “an honest assessment of how the international community, and the United States in particular, can play a positive role in assisting Afghans to counter violence and rebuild their country.”

Their recommendations include setting a “swift timetable” to withdraw U.S. and NATO troops and substitute a UN force for short-term security, immediately stopping air strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, supporting negotiations that include Afghan women leaders, investing in long-term aid projects such as sustainable agriculture and compensating Afghan families and communities affected by U.S. military actions.

Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed president, Hamid Karzai, has also been rethinking the international troop presence. He recently told visiting UN officials that in the absence of military success a time should be set for the troops to leave, and that talks should be opened with leaders of the Islamic extremist Taliban who demonstrate national loyalty.

To date over 550 U.S. troops and nearly 400 NATO soldiers have died in the Afghan conflict. At least 3,200 Afghan civilians have been killed during U.S. and NATO attacks including the deaths of as many as 90 civilians including 60 children in August, when a U.S.-led air strike hit a memorial service for a tribal leader in the western Afghan village of Azizabad.

In an article posted last week on TomDispatch.com, Afghanistan-based journalist Anand Gopal said the mounting civilian casualties, together with the “mismanagement” and “rampant criminality” of the U.S.-based government headed by Karzai, have opened the way to a “spectacular resurgence” of the Taliban and similar groups, which now control large parts of the south and east.

Though the original Taliban was defeated after the U.S. invasion in 2001, the country’s descent into chaos, as warlords and bandits came to dominate large areas, opened the way for their resurgence and their ability to win people over with promises of security and efficiency, Gopal said. The insurgency now includes nationalists, religious extremists and bandits, and various Taliban factions as well as other armed insurgent groups.

Meanwhile, Families for Peaceful Tomorrows said Afghanistan is the world’s fourth poorest country, with 42 percent of the population below the poverty line and another 20 percent hovering just above it. With Afghans suffering from not only the effects of war, but also from the worldwide rise in food prices, 70 percent of Afghans face food insecurity.

The country is also the world’s largest producer of opium, with poppy production soaring in recent years. Last year a record poppy crop amounted to half the country’s GDP.

Despite the Karzai government’s reforms for women, Families for Peaceful Tomorrows said rampant inequalities and abuse continue and Afghanistan is the only country where suicides among women exceed those by men.

“It is time the U.S. stops playing the game of ‘liberator’ and starts learning to cooperate respectfully with other nations and peoples of the world,” their report said. “Beginning this new strategy in Afghanistan is the best legacy the U.S. can leave for the lives lost on 9/11 and the most effective way to become a friend of the people of Afghanistan.”

mbechtel@ pww.org. Tom Whitney contributed to this article.