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In that event, the official said, CIA and special operations forces would continue to hunt al Qaeda in Taliban areas the Afghan forces can’t secure. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss planning for sensitive operations.

“If the CIA built an intelligence network that could provide special operations forces with targets, we could do the job,” said Maj. Gen. Bennet S. Sacolick, who runs the U.S. Army’s Special Warfare Center and School.

The only question will be which organization is in charge, and that will depend on the Afghan government, the senior U.S. official said. If Afghan authorities are comfortable with U.S. raiders continuing to operate openly, the special operations forces can lead, the official said. If they want a more covert presence, the CIA would lead, with special operation raiders working through them.

The other branch of special operations — the Green Berets and others Gen. Mulholland mentioned who specialize in training — would continue to support the Afghans in remote locations, trying to keep the Taliban from spreading.

The notion of a pared-down U.S. fighting force, consisting of a latticework of intelligence and special operators, plus the far-flung units in the field, has spurred some criticism on Capitol Hill.

“You cannot protect the United States’ safety with counterterrorism waged from afar,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s emerging threats panel. His concern is that the White House has paid too little attention to how special operations and intelligence will keep the Taliban from overwhelming Afghanistan’s remote terrain.

“I would like to know how many special operations forces they need and how many conventional troops they propose to support them,” he said, “and a rough time line.”

The smaller special operations footprint could work if it’s part of a larger tapestry of counterinsurgency efforts, said retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, former commander of the Afghan campaign.

“I believe direct action operations are only effective when part of a holistic strategy,” Mr. McChrystal said in an interview. “That does not necessarily imply large U.S. forces or responsibility, but it must include a spectrum of efforts that addresses root causes, partners with indigenous governments and efforts, and approaches the causes as well as the symptoms on extremism and/or terrorism.”

In other words, diplomats and aid groups would have to replace the current military efforts at building Afghan government and services — and do it without a large footprint of U.S. forces to provide them security.

The smaller numbers would also put the U.S. troops left behind at greater risk, officials concede, with fewer support troops to rush to the rescue.

That’s the mission a group of elite special operators was on in August, flying into a remote valley to aid another group of U.S. raiders on the ground, when the Taliban shot down their Chinook helicopter, killing 38 U.S. and Afghan forces on board.

Asked if it could happen again, Gen. Mulholland stopped and bowed his head, taking a long pause to think back to how it started.

“From the beginning, we accepted that risk,” Gen. Mulholland said, remembering the early days when he sent load after load of special operations forces into Afghanistan, with no sure way to get them out.

He paused again. “We still do.”