WASHINGTON — It may be the most pressing strategic question of America's month-long military campaign in Afghanistan: Do the internal foes of the Taliban - the Northern Alliance and other rebel forces - really have the ability to achieve US aims?
Washington has acknowledged just how uncertain the answer is, even as it intensifies efforts to aid those opposition groups. In hope of advancing its goal of felling the Taliban government, the United States in recent days has increased bombing of front-line Taliban forces and worked to insert more special-operations troops to help coordinate the war effort.
"It is, I think, a question as to whether or not the opposition forces - the Northern Alliance, the tribes in the south - are going to pursue the Taliban and the Al Qaeda with the necessary energy and success that one would like," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a televised interview last week. "It's far too soon to say."
While resistance forces have shown some signs of sporadic movement, such as near the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, it could take months for the United States to bolster the resistance to the point where it could effectively take on the Taliban, predict some former military commanders.
While there have been reports of sporadic movement by resistance forces, such as near the city of Mazar-e Sharif, Pentagon officials describe the fight against the Taliban so far as an "ebb and flow." It could take months, some former military commanders predict, for the US to bolster the resistance to the point where it could effectively take on the Taliban.
Indeed, some military experts say the US has relied too much, and too soon, on a conventional military strategy - dominated by air power - while failing first to lay the groundwork for the kind of unconventional guerrilla warfare needed to uproot the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network.
"We have been attacked asymmetrically, but what we've done in response is a classic, conventional response out of our playbook," says retired Col. Hy Rothstein, a veteran special-operations commander now at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.
The upshot, these experts predict, will be continued delays and dashed expectations, as US special-operations teams essentially start from scratch in shoring up the small, factional, and dispersed opposition groups.
"You can't start a bombing campaign, then throw a bunch of troops on the ground and think you can get those resistance elements going very quickly," says Colonel Rothstein. "When you have not worked with the folks for ... months together, the likelihood of having well-coordinated operations is almost zero."
But other experts say America had little choice but to quickly start bombing to try to disrupt the activities of its prime target - terrorists - by forcing them to go into hiding. Efforts to bolster the resistance can go on in concert with the air campaign, they argue.
"We can do both. We can walk and chew gum at the same time," says Tom Nichols, a professor of strategy at the United States Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
US officials and military experts agree, however, that the United States faces major obstacles as it works to build up the anti-Taliban resistance forces, which are currently outnumbered by the Taliban.
So far, despite what Mr. Rumsfeld described as "many, many, many weeks" of diligent work, the US military has succeeded in putting only a few dozen troops on the ground with the opposition in northern Afghanistan.
Enemy ground fire, a lack of safe landing zones, and bad weather, including freezing rain and dust storms, have slowed the effort to insert more special-forces teams, officials say. A US helicopter crash landing on Friday, during an aborted mission to rescue an ill US commando in Afghanistan, again illustrated the hazards of the country's rugged climate and terrain. (Four US troops were injured in the crash, and the serviceman was safely rescued on a second attempt Saturday.)
An equally daunting obstacle, however, is for US forces to make certain who is friend and foe on the ground - and then to build trust, US military officials say. "You have to get in there with them and build trust, or learn to trust," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem told a Pentagon briefing. "Once you see how they operate, you then know who you can trust and who you probably should not."
Such trust is crucial as US troops currently work with the main anti-Taliban group, a loose coalition of fighters known as the Northern Alliance - both by identifying Taliban targets for US airstrikes, as well as by offering broad tactical advice, US officials say.
Rumsfeld, on a four-day trip that included efforts to win greater military cooperation from Central Asian nations, emphasized the difficulties of working with the dispersed, factional opposition groups of northern Afghanistan. "On any given day, you can find someone who will be happy and someone who will be sad," he said. "You will find someone who is pleased with the targeting and someone who isn't."
Signaling the ongoing efforts to recruit more anti-Taliban fighters, Rumsfeld said the United States "is trying to help everyone we can find to help. And we keep adding more people every week."
US troops are also helping to resupply the Northern Alliance with ammunition and food, as well as winter gear. Because of the mountainous terrain, however, air-dropped supplies often do not arrive into opposition hands for three to four days. The US military is sending food and ammunition to resistance elements in southern Afghanistan, but the Pentagon suggests it does not have ground troops there yet.