The new NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has warned of possible "mission failure" unless more international forces, coupled with new tactics to win local support, are deployed immediately.
In a blunt assessment of the situation to the US Defense secretary, Robert Gates – a copy of which has been obtained by US newspapers – McChrystal was scathing about corruption within the Afghan government and the tactics used by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops, of which he took command in June.
"Failure to provide adequate resources ... risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs and, ultimately, a critical loss of political support," he wrote in a 66-page document, details of which were reported by the Washington Post and the New York Times.
"Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure."
McChrystal wrote that "ISAF requires more forces", mentioning "previously validated, yet unsourced, requirements" – seemingly a reference to a request for 10,000 extra troops made by his predecessor, General David McKiernan.
"Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) – while Afghan security capacity matures – risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible," he warned.
Coupled with this was a requirement for new tactics, like training more NATO troops in local languages so they would be "seen as guests of the Afghan people and their government, not an occupying army".
"Preoccupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us – physically and psychologically – from the people we seek to protect ... the insurgents cannot defeat us militarily, but we can defeat ourselves."
McChrystal said NATO forces should spend "as little time as possible in armoured vehicles or behind the walls of forward operating bases", warning that in the short term this meant it was "realistic to expect that Afghan and coalition casualties will increase".
In a series of television interviews broadcast yesterday, the US president, Barack Obama, said he was still considering whether more troops should be sent to Afghanistan.
"I just want to make sure that everybody understands that you don't make decisions about resources before you have the strategy ready," he said on ABC's This Week program.
Obama told NBC's Meet the Press it was a difficult decision to send more US forces into a conflict zone.
"I'm the one who's answerable to their parents if they don't come home," he said. "So I have to ask some very hard questions any time I send our troops in."
NATO sources told the Guardian last week that any extra troops for Afghanistan would have to come from the UK or other European nations because the US military remained heavily committed in Iraq.
"The Germans have more capacity, as do the French, the Italians and the United Kingdom," one NATO source said.
In his report, McChrystal warned that a combination of muddled NATO tactics and corruption within Afghanistan's government and officialdom had left Afghans "reluctant to align with us against the insurgents".
"The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of powerbrokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF's own errors have given Afghans little reason to support their government.
"Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood.
"ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, powerbrokers and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population."
In a separate section, he warned that the Afghan prison system had been turned into "a sanctuary and base" for insurgents to plan and to recruit among criminals.
He identified three main insurgent groups, saying they were "clearly supported from Pakistan".
"The insurgents control or contest a significant portion of the country, although it is difficult to assess precisely how much due to a lack of ISAF presence."
Senior Afghan police officials told the Associated Press more troops could make things worse. "It is very hard for local people to accept any foreigners who come to our country and say they are fighting for our freedom," said General Azizudin Wardak, the police chief in Paktia province.
"To give the idea that they are not invaders, that they are not occupiers, is very difficult."
Mohammad Pashtun, who heads the criminal investigation unit in southern Kandahar, the Taliban's heartland, said the money would be better off going to Afghan forces.
"Increasing international troops is not useful," he said. "For the expense of one American soldier, we can pay for 15 Afghan soldiers or police."