No winter lull. What's more, fighting may not let up this winter, traditionally a time when Afghan insurgents regroup as snow blocks their supply routes through mountain passes. U.S. forces in the eastern part of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, have found hidden caches of sleeping bags and winter coats. "There is always the question, are they [Taliban] strong enough, are they winning over tribes enough, that they can stay through the winter and start next year much stronger?" says a senior military official in Afghanistan. "The reporting is that there is some intent to do that."
If the Taliban doesn't take time out to regroup, it means U.S. forces won't get a breather, either. This lends a sense of urgency to new strategic reviews of the war currently underway at both the White House and the Pentagon. Military officials note that these reviews need to revisit some very basic matters: "The first-order question is, 'What are we trying to do in Afghanistan?'" says Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine officer who is now a fellow at the Center for New American Security. He says he has spoken with senior officials who share his view that "there doesn't seem to be a strategic end state that every player agrees upon." Pentagon officials respond that the main goal is "to get at the extremist threat and eliminate it." That said, one adds, "we recognize that it can't just be a military solution."
More troops are expected to reinforce 71,000 American and NATO comrades already there. But, says Fick, "I would suggest that two or three additional brigades beg the question of, 'To do what?'" It is, senior defense officials concede, a fair question. "Before we say we need three to five brigades, we've got to figure out what the hell we're doing," says a senior U.S. military official in Kabul.
Some troops will likely go to the provinces nearest Kabul to address concerns that the Taliban is trying to encircle and isolate the capital. "I think that will start us out next year much better off, when that area isn't an ungoverned space that the insurgents have free rein in," says the senior military official in Afghanistan. Others will be used to train the underpaid, widely corrupt Afghan police.
At the Pentagon, the strategic review is focusing most heavily on the role of Pakistan, whose ungoverned tribal territories provide sanctuary for Afghan insurgents and al Qaeda leaders. Those close to the policy review process add that a key to any new strategy will be to eliminate those sanctuaries as extensions of the Afghan battlefield. "We're looking at them, militarily speaking, as one theater of operations," says the senior Pentagon official. "We're looking at the insurgent and extremist threat as a single threat to both nations. Our focus is on eliminating that."
To that end, the U.S. military, with presidential authorization, has stepped up cross-border operations in the past month or so. These include missions by special forces as well as increased attacks by Predator drones and other aircraft. But these raids are proving controversial, even within the U.S. military. Pakistani officials have accused America of violating their nation's sovereignty, and U.S. troops have taken fire from supposedly friendly Pakistani soldiers. "It's very tense there," the senior Pentagon official says. "We do the very best we can to keep them informed of what we're doing, but the nature of the targets doesn't permit a lot of advanced heads-up."
Some defense officials privately worry those actions may alienate Pakistan's leadership and drive insurgents further into an already volatile Pakistan. "I cannot imagine the U.S. interests to be served by overt cross-border operations," McCaffrey says.
One of those interests may be to publicly pressure the Pakistani military leadership to deal with the extremist problem itself rather than watch as American forces reach across the border. But the Pakistani military—built on the perceived threat from neighboring India—isn't made for domestic counterinsurgency operations. For this reason, Admiral Mullen has made repeated trips to try to persuade the Pakistani Army to accept U.S. trainers. "We've indicated that we are ready, willing, and able to assist them in training in whatever way they deem appropriate," says the senior Pentagon official. "We are still working our way through the arrangements—slowly, a little more slowly than we'd like."