As a U.S.-led coalition races to develop a new strategy to counter growing Taliban and al Qaeda militancy, the next U.S. president will face a crisis that has left U.S. officials walking a tightrope with both Afghanistan and its nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan.
Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain advance different strategies for Iraq. But both now agree that Afghanistan must be a top priority for years to come.
After the rapid overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, the war in Afghanistan began to take a back seat to Iraq. Many U.S. and military intelligence analysts contend that Taliban militancy was given the opportunity to fester as the Bush administration moved resources into Iraq and left Afghanistan to fend largely for itself.
"Losing focus on Afghanistan is certainly a reason why the Taliban and al Qaeda have become stronger," said a senior military official in Washington who asked not to be named. "The next president, regardless, needs to focus on Afghanistan. They need to be able to convey a common goal to all NATO allies and they need to focus on dismantling al Qaeda beginning with [Osama] bin Laden."
With violence escalating over the summer in the region and a rising U.S. and NATO death toll, slighting Afghanistan is no longer an option.
"The problem with Afghanistan today is that the momentum is all with the Taliban," said Bruce Riedel, author of a new book, "The Search for al Qaeda." "We need to break the momentum the Taliban has developed because we have under-resourced this war for seven years."
Mr. Riedel, a veteran CIA authority on South Asia and the Middle East, said it was important to "get some sense of security back in southern Afghanistan" and proposed more U.S. and NATO boots on the ground, more economic aid and better governance.
Improving security is becoming more urgent in an environment of economic deterioration and growing distrust for the administration of President Hamid Karzai.
Mr. Obama has called for withdrawing one or two U.S. combat brigades from Iraq a month beginning in January, and would like to send "at least two brigades" to Afghanistan, said a spokeswoman for the campaign, Wendy Morigi.
The Democratic nominee has been calling for more troops for Afghanistan for more than a year. He has also said that U.S. forces should be willing to enter Pakistan´s tribal regions in hot pursuit of al Qaeda fugitives, with or without approval from the Pakistani government.
Mr. McCain has criticized Mr. Obama for advertising U.S. plans in advance. In their debate Oct. 7, Mr. McCain quoted Theodore Roosevelt, who said, "Talk softly, but carry a big stick."
Mr. Obama "likes to talk loudly," Mr. McCain said. "In fact, he said he wants to announce that he's going to attack Pakistan. Remarkable."
Mr. Obama responded by saying, "Nobody called for the invasion of Pakistan. ... If Pakistan is unable or unwilling to hunt down bin Laden and take him out, then we should."
Mr. McCain has disagreed with Mr. Obama on an Iraq pullout timetable and warned that a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq could jeopardize gains both there and in Afghanistan.
"What happens in Iraq matters in Afghanistan. ... It matters in all the countries in the region," he said during a speech in June.
A veteran of the Vietnam War and a former prisoner of war, Mr. McCain said Iraq has played a central role in gaining ground against al Qaeda and that a hasty withdrawal would lead to a resurgence of the terrorist organization.
During the summer, however, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and senior Pentagon officials, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael G. Mullen, called for an increase in troops in Afghanistan.
Mr. McCain´s campaign then revised its position.
In a July press release, Mr. McCain stated that "the status quo in Afghanistan is unacceptable, and from the moment the next president walks into the Oval Office, he will face critical decisions about Afghanistan. ... Thanks to the success of the surge [in Iraq], these forces are becoming available, and our commanders in Afghanistan must get them."
Later the Arizona Republican said in an interview with MSNBC that NATO partners also must do more in Afghanistan, providing three additional brigades if possible. There are about 33,000 U.S. troops in the country and another 20,000 from other NATO members.
No matter who occupies the Oval Office, Afghanistan will be a daunting challenge. Violence and charges of corruption have escalated over the past year in a poverty-stricken nation of 32 million.
Progress in Afghanistan will require cooperation from Pakistan, which helped create the Taliban movement in the late 1980s and has regarded Afghanistan as a battlefield with arch-rival India. A new civilian government in Pakistan has pledged to fight militants within its borders but faces rising anti-American sentiment in a nuclear-armed country of 172 million.
"We must be willing to trust in one another because we are both fighting the same enemy," said a senior Pakistani government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Whoever is president needs to truly understand the region and the people if they are to succeed. We joke that sometimes the Pakistanis should be allowed to vote in this upcoming election since any decision the new American president makes will directly affect our nation."