WASHINGTON — Confronting the prospect of failure after seven years in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is crafting a new strategy that is likely to expand the power and reach of that country's tribal militias while relying less on the increasingly troubled central government.
Under that approach, U.S. forces would scale back combat operations to focus more on training Afghan government forces and tribal militias. The plan is controversial because it could extend the influence of warlords while undermining the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, the capital.
The strategy also could set up a hair-trigger rivalry between national security units and the improved tribal forces, proponents acknowledge.
The U.S. military's willingness to consider such risks reflects the growing worry about worsening conditions in Afghanistan. Until recently, the military would not have considered a move to bolster tribal militias, but, with relatively few troops available, military leaders believe only a new approach to the war can stanch the spreading violence.
"There has been very, very tough fighting this year, and it will be tougher next year unless we adjust," Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday.
Supporters contend that the dangers are offset by the prospect that well-trained tribal forces could help improve local security, undercut the insurgency and strengthen ties between rural areas and the central government.
"My bottom line is that this is clearly something we should do," said a senior military officer, who was one of several who requested anonymity in describing strategy reviews because they were still underway.
By focusing on tribal militias and local security, the approach resembles the U.S. campaign in Iraq, where former Sunni insurgents are paid to guard their neighborhoods. But American officers emphasize that they are not planning to rely on a troop buildup similar to the one used in Iraq -- a topic of debate and commentary during the intensifying U.S. presidential campaign -- in Afghanistan.
Frustrated with Kabul
The new approach also reflects increasing frustration among U.S. and allied commanders with Afghanistan's central government, which they believe has proved too weak to exert any meaningful influence outside the capital, especially in the country's mountainous reaches.
Although Karzai several years ago declared that the era of warlordism was over and offered several warlords influential posts in the central government, they remain extremely powerful forces in the country. Many enjoy great influence in their home provinces, with some fielding private militias or gaining wealth from the opium trade.
Any broad effort to train tribal militias probably would have U.S. military forces working with Taliban sympathizers. But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is in Budapest, Hungary, to discuss the Afghanistan war with North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers, said Thursday that the U.S. would be open to reconciling with the Taliban.
"There has to be ultimately, and I'll underscore ultimately, reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this," Gates said. "That's ultimately the exit strategy for all of us."
The new Afghanistan strategy is being crafted as new intelligence assessments conclude that the nation is spiraling downward in part because of the government's shortcomings and widespread corruption. Those findings, contained in an upcoming U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, pose new concerns for American forces in Afghanistan, which have reported record casualties in 2007 and 2008.
The impending strategy shift is emerging from reviews set in motion this year and now nearing completion. The Pentagon and the White House are conducting such reviews, and U.S. Central Command, the military headquarters in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East, is crafting its own recommendations.
Results of the White House review, conducted under Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan, are weeks away, an administration official said.
The military reviews, one ordered by Mullen and the other by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the incoming head of Central Command, may be more significant because they could guide options presented to the next administration.
"My whole focus is on how to get this right," Mullen said, "not just for the next few months, but for the foreseeable future."
There are more than 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, far fewer than the 146,000 in Iraq. Military officials hope to send as many as 15,000 new troops in 2009, but some members of the Joint Chiefs have insisted that no additional forces should be deployed until a new strategy is in place.
A particularly acute need is for new military trainers for regular Afghan forces and the militias, as part of the U.S. push to improve local security.