The US military is working to put a new strategy in place for Afghanistan and Pakistan that could allow it to expand airfields, preposition military forces and equipment, and prepare for a more robust effort soon against Islamist extremists in the region.
Frustrated for years by a lack of direction from the White House on Afghanistan, many defense officials say time is of the essence in developing a new way forward and having it ready to implement as soon as a new president is seated and can agree to it.
The military sees this period – as one administration is ending and another is set to begin – as an opportunity to offer the next president an Afghanistan strategy less shaped by lofty democratic ideals and more by what Pentagon strategists believe can actually be achieved there.
The aim for now is to put the pieces in place so that a new strategy can be "turned on" as soon as possible.
"The worst thing for us would be a gap in administrations, a period of indecision," says one senior military officer who spoke on background because the plans are still under development. "You can put the wheels in motion."
Seven years into the war in Afghanistan, President Bush has directed a comprehensive review of US policy there and in neighboring Pakistan, a US ally attempting to confront its own terrorist insurgency. He has demanded an accelerated timetable for an assessment over the next few weeks, prompting some critics to wonder why the hurry now that the Bush administration is drawing to a close.
Input from many quarters
The overall review is led by Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, Mr. Bush's so-called war czar. General Lute's recommendations to the president will include views from Central Command, as well as the Joint Staff at the Pentagon and Gen. David McKiernan, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, defense officials say. Another piece to the review will be led by Gen. David Petraeus, former top US commander in Iraq who is now headed to US Central Command in Tampa, Fla. But his recommendations may not surface until next year under a new president.
Those inside and outside the military who saw the Bush White House as too intently focused on Iraq, hope the next administration will put fresh eyes on Afghanistan.
Now there is "more confidence that changing strategies can change outcomes," says John Nagl, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington. The US military has "an opportunity to fundamentally rethink our Afghanistan strategy."
Limited by commitments in Iraq
Improved security in Iraq allows the US military more flexibility in addressing deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan, where the eastern sector, which is under American control, has seen a 40 percent increase in violence this year over last.
But as the military plans a new approach to the Afghanistan conflict, it remains hamstrung by its commitments in Iraq. Some 152,000 troops are there now, and defense officials acknowledge the military can't do much more in Afghanistan until additional troops return from Iraq.
Even as these reviews take place, the Pentagon is poised to send as many as four new brigades to Afghanistan, including one that will deploy in January. The other brigades probably wouldn't deploy until a new administration is in place and, military officials warn, until a broader strategy is set into which they would fit.
What about diplomacy and trade?
In recognition that the military alone cannot resolve the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has pushed for more input from the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, and Agriculture.
There is also emerging recognition of the limits of what the military – and the US more broadly – can achieve in Afghanistan. For all the similarities between Iraq and Afghanistan, in terms of the insurgencies that have plagued those countries, the two are very different.
Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has never had a strong central government. As a result, the US must manage its expectations of what it can achieve there, say some government officials.
"We've got to be a lot more humble than we've been," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama in a hearing last week. The challenge of getting people in a poor, vast, tribe-dominated country to pay heed to "some bureaucrat in Kabul" is daunting, he said.
The senator's words prompted Defense Secretary Robert Gates to respond that the US government must "listen better" to Afghan leaders. "The history of Afghanistan has been that if the Afghan people see a foreigner that they believe is trying to help them, it works out OK; if they see a foreigner that they regard as an occupier, it hasn't ever worked."