One option is to draw down forces and attack Al Qaeda mostly with drones and special forces. But such a strategy is fraught with difficulties that make it 'unrealistic,' some say.
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."