WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration debates whether to shift its aims in Afghanistan, officials at the Pentagon and National Security Council have begun developing "middle path" strategies that would require fewer troops than their ground commander is seeking.
Measures under consideration include closer cooperation with local tribal chiefs and regional warlords, using CIA agents as intermediaries and cash payments as incentives, said current and former officials who described the strategies on condition of anonymity.
Other steps would concentrate U.S. and allied troops in cities, pulling out of Afghanistan's widely dispersed rural areas. At the same time, the allied forces would push ahead with plans to intensify training of Afghan troops, officials said.
None of the strategies envision troop reductions, but officials said they would not require the 40,000-troop increase preferred by Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander. A number of White House officials favor sending fewer than 20,000 additional troops.
In February, President Obama approved 21,000 additional American troops, bringing the U.S. force to 68,000. There also are about 38,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in the country.
Obama's national security team met Wednesday for a fifth time to discuss options for Afghanistan. Senior administration officials said later that no formal alternative to the troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign outlined by McChrystal has been put on the table.
But officials said Obama is considering proposals to amend McChrystal's plans.
Another strategy meeting is planned for next week, and two Defense officials said McChrystal may travel to Washington to attend.
Anticipating a possible shift in administration strategy, Republicans have criticized options providing fewer than 40,000 troops as risky half-measures.
"It's a big gamble," Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said recently. "Which half of the war do you want to fight?"
With the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan already 8 years old, advocates of a middle approach question whether the American public will support a long-term effort.
"There is a growing view, a minority opinion, within the military that worries about the sustainability on the domestic front of what McChrystal is proposing," said an administration official. "A year and a half from now we could find there is not the will to sustain this McChrystal approach."
One approach would be to take McChrystal's plan and "pare it down," moving troops away from less important objectives, said a former official who served in both the Bush and Obama administrations.
The middle path strategies would not try to establish strict limits on U.S. efforts, such as focusing on attacking Al Qaeda, a posture once favored by Vice President Joe Biden.
However, the measures are less ambitious than the in-depth counterinsurgency strategy advocated by McChrystal and other military leaders.
The administration official said that in addition to protecting the largest population centers and training Afghan security forces, the U.S. should take more aggressive action against poppy farming, which provides a substantial part of the Taliban's income; continue to strike Al Qaeda targets; and work to improve Afghan government services, at least in the largest cities.
"We should help the Afghans hold these major urban areas. Hold all the major cities, then there is a perception of security, commerce starts," the official said. "But forget about the wastelands."
Cooperation with warlords and tribal chiefs could generate considerable controversy.
During the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban for harboring Al Qaeda, the Bush administration routinely made deals with tribal leaders and warlords to pacify parts of the country.
Over the years, some of those alliances faded and others were superseded by political deals made by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Nonetheless, the U.S. has continually worked with tribal elders and influential regional leaders, motivated in part by discomfort over Karzai's political alliances and, more recently, allegations of fraud in the country's August presidential election.
Many of the warlords are dogged by allegations of corruption and brutality, but allied forces also have allowed them to exercise a measure of control over their home regions.
"We already have ceded control in parts of the country to warlords," said Thomas X. Hammes, a retired U.S. Marine colonel now at the National Defense University. "People say it is a horrible thing to do. Well, we are doing it."
In Wednesday's White House strategy meeting, officials debated whether the U.S. can do more to win over Pashtun tribes and break their alliance with the Taliban leadership.