President Barack Obama's top commander in Afghanistan has delayed the strategically crucial battle for Kandahar, signalling a shift to a slow, gradual effort to sap Taliban support in the war-ravaged province rather than a major military offensive.
"It will happen more slowly than we had originally anticipated," General Stanley McChrystal said. For weeks, senior U.S. officials have been scaling back the ambitious expectations, insisting for instance that no "offensive" was ever planned.
With casualties soaring, public support at home slipping, and the surge-and-get-out strategy looking too optimistic, Gen. McChrystal's cautious warnings came as NATO ministers gathered to assess progress in the Afghan counterinsurgency, on which the alliance has staked its post-Cold-War reason for existence.
The President, having made the Afghan conflict his war, tripling the number of U.S. troops there to roughly 100,000, is also caught in a time squeeze. While successful counterinsurgencies usually need more than a decade - and most military analysts believe the past eight years in Afghanistan have been mostly a stop-gap effort - Mr. Obama has also pledged to start pulling American troops out of the war-ravaged country.
Trimming expectations, while preparing Americans for the long haul, seems to be the new strategy to bolster public support at home.
"Kandahar and Helmand are important, but they are not the only provinces in Afghanistan that matter in terms of the outcome of this struggle," Defence Secretary Robert Gates said this week. Polls show American support for the war sagging to its lowest level since Mr. Obama was running for the presidency, when he vowed to pull out of Iraq and escalate the war he said that mattered - in Afghanistan.
In the latest poll, 53 per cent said the Afghan war wasn't worth the costs. That was before a sudden upsurge in combat deaths. In the first 10 days of June, 30 foreign soldiers were killed, most of them American. That's almost as many - 33 - killed so far this year in Iraq.
Audacious Taliban attacks, including two in the recent past on the main NATO bases at Kandahar and Bagram, have demonstrated the Islamic insurgents haven't been cowed by the arrival of tens of thousands of U.S. troops.
The Taliban also shot down a U.S. helicopter earlier this week. And yesterday, the big Chinook helicopter carrying Britain's new Prime Minister, David Cameron, on his first tour of Afghanistan was diverted from landing at a forward operating base after communications intercepts detected a Taliban attack was being planned.
The Taliban also fired missiles at a Kabul peace gathering during President Hamid Karzai's welcoming address, forcing the beleaguered Afghan leader to retreat to his palace.
It's going to be "a very tough summer" of escalating violence, Mr. Gates predicted.
But even as America's allies - including Canada and the Netherlands - end combat operations and the Taliban insurgency appears to be gaining strength, some military analysts say the long-term strategy to win in Afghanistan is just beginning to gain traction.
James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, says the emergency counterinsurgency strategy for southern Afghanistan is "very demanding, very intense and will require an extraordinary degree of integration," not just between U.S. military and civilian agencies but also to include allied military and development teams and the still-nascent Afghan security forces and local governments.
"This is a mammoth task and will need time," he said.
He suggested that Mr. Obama's self-imposed deadline of next summer may be flexible, especially if progress is evident in creating civil society in southern Afghanistan in the classic, clear, hold and build counterinsurgency strategy.
"If by the middle of next year everyone can see that the strategy is working … then it is the time frame that should shift, not the strategy," Mr. Dobbins said.
Integrating some tough lessons learned from the Marja offensive this spring in neighbouring Helmand also seems to have delayed the Kandahar push. In Marja, thousands of U.S. Marines quickly ousted entrenched Taliban but insufficient follow-on forces - especially Afghan police to maintain a presence - largely undermined the operation.
Waiting longer, going slower and getting the job done properly now seems to underpin Gen. McChrystal's deliberate pace. "It's more important that we get it right than we get it fast," he said.
"The President wants to see a reversal of the war," Mr. Dobbins said. "We need to stop losing and start winning." Mr. Gates made it clear that he understands there's a hearts-and-minds battle to be won at home too, not just among Afghans uncertain as to whether the latest foreign armies will be defeated by time, terrain and fiercely determined insurgents.
Getting bogged down in a protracted insurgency half way around the globe poses huge political risks. "Stalemate will be a big problem for everybody, including the United States," Mr. Gates said. "None of the publics [either in the U.S. or among the allies]will tolerate the perception of a stalemate in which we're losing young men," he said.