President Obama is considering a range of options for Afghanistan, including a radically narrower strategy for Afghanistan that would forgo thousands of additional troops and try to do the job with small ground units and drones.
The White House review of US strategy has been precipitated in part by the battlefield assessment of the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which says that the US must significantly increase troops levels and resources or risk failure.
The alternative, narrower counterterrorism strategy would focus on how to suppress militant activity while appeasing elements of the American electorate and the political left, which are increasingly uncomfortable with a deepening engagement in Afghanistan. Its goal would be to reduce the need for thousands of American troops on the ground – now about 68,000.
There are doubts about whether this option would be effective, however. Mr. Obama has defined the US goal in the region as disrupting and dismantling Al Qaeda. But there are few Al Qaeda elements still in Afghanistan. Instead, they have fled to neighboring Pakistan.
McChrystal's answer to this quandary is to use thousands of troops to build a safe and secure Afghanistan, insulating it from and array of internal and external threats, including Al Qaeda. If Obama rejects this idea, then he will have to consider defeating terrorist networks inside Pakistan – a proposition fraught with significant political and logistical difficulties.
"It's defining what the threat is," says Juan Carlos Zarate, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "If we're talking about the threats to the streets of Washington and New York, it's not coming out of Afghanistan, it's coming out of Pakistan."
This option is essentially the opposite of the counterinsurgency strategy proposed by McChrsytal. Though it would be far more politically palatable to many members of Obama's own party, it would likely alienate a military that increasingly believes doing the Afghanistan mission right means deploying enough troops to mount a proper counterinsurgency.
The counterterrorism option was recently popularized by the conservative columnist George Will, who earlier this month argued that the US should get out of Afghanistan and essentially run a counter-terrorism operation from a distance.
"American should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous, 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters," wrote Will in his syndicated column Sept. 1.
"Genius," he said, is "knowing when to stop."
Such an option would also rely on efforts to peel away militants who are not ideologically connected to the movement but in it for the money. Such an effort that has worked in Iraq but in the environment of the US surge, not a pull back of forces.
There are limits to the counterterrorism strategy, and few who speak publicly agree with Will. That includes Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican who said he has "a lot of respect for Mr. Will."
"The notion that you can conduct a purely counterterrorist kind of campaign and do it from a distance simply does not accord with reality," Mr. Gates told reporters earlier this month.
Even a narrow counterterrorist mission must focus on local law enforcement, intelligence, and internal security, Gates said.
The idea that the US could "just walk away" from Afghanistan and not have the situation deteriorate is a falsehood, he added: "I think it is unrealistic."