The Pentagon will send a one-star general to Afghanistan this fall as part of a politically parlous but determined effort by the US to assume greater control in the country's troubled southern sector.
It's a small change to the complex command structure blamed for an ineffective counterinsurgency strategy that allowed the Taliban to stage a comeback.
But the deployment of the commander may pave the way for the US to slowly begin taking over the southern sector's military efforts as NATO's role there diminishes over time.
"I really think this will be a precursor of a larger American role," says one retired senior officer familiar with the move.
With his recent promotion to brigadier general, John "Mick" Nicholson likely will become a deputy commander of what's known as Regional Command South, making him the "go-to" American contact to coordinate US efforts within the snarl of US and NATO commands. The retired senior officer describes General Nicholson as "a tremendous talent." "Putting Nicholson in there is recognition that we've got to get more US engagement in the headquarters," he says.
The deployment of Nicholson and a small American staff comes after reports last week that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will approve a $17 billion funding program to increase the size of the Afghan National Army by almost 100 percent to 120,000 soldiers.
Mr. Gates, who for months appeared unenthusiastic about making changes to the convoluted command structure in Afghanistan, will also approve changes in which the current NATO commander, Gen. David McKiernan – an American – will also report directly to US Central Command in Tampa. Fla. Currently General McKiernan reports through a NATO chain of command, which has stymied the American efforts to focus combat operations in the south.
"They are laying the necessary groundwork so that the really painful but necessary decisions will fall to the next administration – including the US taking over in a significant way," says one Republican aide on Capitol Hill.
Initially a symbol of what an American-led coalition could do in the days after the attacks in September 2001, the mission in Afghanistan began to falter a couple years ago as the Taliban exploited the ineffectiveness of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission there.
Now, American and some allied nations recognize the need for a definitive combat role in the southern sector, including Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where the violence is some of the worst. But the effort to right the approach has been hamstrung by a lack of troops and a bifurcated command structure in which, unlike the mission in Iraq, no single commander is really in charge.
In Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus is the sole commander and thusly can "shape the battlefield" using his own counterinsurgency strategy.
In Afghanistan, the senior NATO commander owns only about half the troops, the rest of which are American and fall outside the NATO chain of command. Additionally, each regional command, led by a different country's military, takes a different approach.
Violence, while limited to about 10 of the 365 districts across Afghanistan, is on the increase. And much of it stems from insurgents and other terrorist groups who cross the border into Afghanistan to conduct attacks and then retreat back across the border into the tribal region of Pakistan where they are essentially out of reach of coalition forces.
The US has had to stand back and rely on the fledgling efforts of Pakistani military and the Frontier Corps, which operates in much of the Pakistani border region, to go after these insurgents. That has unfolded with limited success thus far.
Changes are afoot, but they will be gradual as the sensitivities of doing anything that could be perceived as American heavy-handedness is a political thorn bush for the US.
Nicholson's deployment is "still being worked," says another military official, in part because of the political sensitivities of sending an American there. But the significance of the deployment of Nicholson and his small staff to the Regional Command South sector is that he will be able to help direct US military operations in the south.
Currently, for example, the contingent of US Marines working in the south fall under a NATO subordinate command that is shared by the Canadians, the Dutch, and the British. But in that particular case, the Marine efforts can be hampered by working under a foreign commander whose approach is not always as aggressive as that of the Americans.
The rotation of command in the southern sector is currently held by the Canadians. This fall, the Dutch will lead Regional Command South for 12 months, followed by the British for another year. It is likely the US in 2010 will then take over command of the south altogether, and retain it indefinitely, sources say.
An ultimate takeover, at least in some form, of the southern sector by the US is not ideal but would be welcome, says Carter Malkasian, director of the Stability and Development Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, a think tank in Washington.
"I think it would be better if we had allies stepping in to do it," he says. "But if they are not going to do it, in the end [US control] is a good thing because it will help improve the security situation."
But any push to remake the strategy in Afghanistan must take a regional approach, say experts such as the retired senior officer and others. For example, sources say McKiernan may also be given a more formal authority over the senior military official in the US Embassy in Pakistan, Rear Adm. Michael LeFevre.
There has been much focus on amping up the number of troops in Afghanistan. But most analysts who study the problem in Afghanistan, as well as many military commanders, recognize that more troops will not be the cure-all. Most important, they say, is a well-defined counterinsurgency strategy to support not only combat activities but also reconstruction and stability initiatives that typically make up the lion's share of any counterinsurgency strategy.
Nonetheless, the US seems poised to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan with perhaps as many as 3,500 or so leaving before the end of this year, says Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
"They are actively involved in determining whether or not additional forces can be sent to Afghanistan, perhaps as soon as this year," says Mr. Morrell.