WASHINGTON (Reuters) - While President Barack Obama wrestles with the idea of committing more troops to Afghanistan, a counter proposal is also on the table -- trim American forces and focus narrowly on counter-terrorism.
It is an idea associated with Vice President Joe Biden, and one that attracts many people who remember the morass that the Vietnam war became for the United States.
More resources would go toward training Afghan forces to fight their own war, and U.S. troops would be withdrawn gradually from the firing line. Pilotless drones, already striking targets in Pakistan's tribal areas, would be increasingly relied upon to hit al Qaeda's leadership and keep them on the defensive.
As a plan, it has its appeal, but it has plenty of critics too.
"I don't think it works," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert from the Brookings Institution.
"If you try to do counter-terrorism from long range then you lose the intelligence you need to carry out any intelligent strikes, because you no longer can protect the people who you need to give the good information."
Drone attacks inevitably cause civilian deaths and tend to fuel radical anti-Americanism. In the long run, the United States could even lose the use of air bases in the region.
Enough Western support could be provided to the Afghan government to perhaps prevent another Taliban takeover of Kabul, but huge swathes of eastern and southern Afghanistan would effectively be ceded to the radical movement.
Islamist radicals would have a permanent base in the Pashtun lands straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, with a steady source of income from the opium trade.
The Heritage Foundation's Lisa Curtis said any kind of scaling back in Afghanistan as a way of bowing to growing domestic opposition to the war would jeopardize security in the United States.
"Pulling up stakes is only an option if we are willing to sit back and wait for another 9/11 terrorist attack."
Hesitation over the right strategy comes as the American president faces growing opposition within his own party over how the war is going and less public tolerance for getting bogged down in what is being dubbed "Obama's war."
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll on Wednesday showed growing doubts about the war, with 51 percent opposed to sending more troops and 44 percent in favor.
What Obama will probably end up with is a "hybrid" plan, said former U.S. defense secretary William Cohen -- fewer troops than the estimated 30,000 the military wants, but with more focus on routing out al Qaeda and the Taliban.
"One thing the United States must do is intensify and accelerate support for more Afghan soldiers and provide intelligence to them ... and be in a supportive role," said Cohen, who runs his own consulting group.
It is an idea which wins broad support, and is also being pushed hard by Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, the head of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Foreign troops don't win insurgencies, local troops and police do," said Christine Fair, assistant professor at Georgetown University.
"We need to not think about the business of kinetics -- killing people -- and get in the business of training up Afghans."
Experts said there would probably also be more of an effort to bring in "moderate" elements of the Taliban while at the same time pressing the Afghan government on corruption.
In his glum assessment of the war leaked this week, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal pushed for a fully resourced counter-insurgency campaign, but also said a crisis of confidence in the Afghan government was fueling the violence.
The uncertain outcome of last month's Afghan election has muddied Obama's decision-making process. Incumbent Hamid Karzai is expected to win but the final result has been postponed while allegations of fraud are investigated.
Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to both Iraq and Pakistan, said it was a mistake to use post-electoral confusion to delay decisions and aiming for a "good-enough" government was probably more realistic.
"Afghans are not overwhelmingly concerned about ballot irregularities but they are about the quality of their lives. That is where our focus needs to be."
What needed to happen, said O'Hanlon, was that the United States should leverage a troop increase with a strong message that Karzai must do more to fight corruption.
"We need to be hedging our bets and sending a message to the Afghans that they have to get a bit more serious."
The longer the strategy debate drags on, the more it could cost Obama support among allies, who are also struggling to contain fatigue among their own populations about a war which began after the 2001 attacks on the United States
"This puts the whole international regional alliance in jeopardy and can also conversely give encouragement to our adversaries," Crocker said, talking of the delay.
"General McChrystal is America's most experienced and finest special ops commander and if he thought that counter-terrorism could be successfully done (without more troops) then we would have seen different recommendations."
(Editing by Simon Denyer)