US President Barack Obama is on perilous political ground between his military and an anxious American public, after his top commander in Afghanistan warned the war could be lost without more troops.
US and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal's blunt assessment, in a classified report partly published by The Washington Post, adds an explosive element to a quickening debate over war strategy.
McChrystal cautioned that failing to gain the initiative against the Taliban insurgency within 12 months could make victory impossible.
Given timelines for allocating military resources, Obama appears to face a narrow window for making fateful evaluations on whether to send more soldiers into the unpopular eight-year war.
The White House insists it will not be rushed into decisions with critical political implications, saying it could be "many weeks" before Obama makes a recommendation.
The administration also suggests McChrystal is just one of several voices Obama will take into account.
"We're soliciting and receiving advice and assessments from a broad range of those who are directly involved," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday.
Obama believes clear goals must be defined in Afghanistan before more troops are sent.
"We're going to conduct that strategic assessment and do that in a way that lays out the best path forward before we make resource decisions, rather than having this go the other way around where one makes resources decisions and then finds a strategy," his spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Increasingly, it seems the White House is examining the core rationale for US involvement in Afghanistan after Obama laid out a plan in March to "disrupt, defeat and dismantle Al-Qaeda."
Several times during television interviews Sunday, Obama stressed a narrow definition of war aims.
"We're going to test whatever resources we have against our strategy, which is if by sending young men and women into harm's way, we are defeating Al-Qaeda," he said on ABC.
"(If) that can be shown to a skeptical audience -- namely me, somebody who is always asking hard questions about deploying troops -- then we will do what's required to keep the American people safe."
Whether that can best be achieved with a bigger US force, and a full Iraq-style counter-insurgency strategy, appears to be under review.
It is possible that the leaking of the McChrystal report indicated some frustration in the Pentagon at White House deliberations.
Admiral Michael Mullen, the most senior US military officer, told lawmakers last week that accelerating the training of the Afghan army will not be sufficient, and that more US troops will probably need to go to Afghanistan.
And one US defense official admitted privately there was indeed some impatience over the White House timeline.
As well as domestic political forces, events in Afghanistan and an apparently fraud-tainted election are also weighing on Obama's decision.
McChrystal's report may indicate the Pentagon is invested in a full-blown counter-insurgency strategy that would require thousands more than the 65,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan.
But public opinion is souring swiftly on the war, as US and civilian casualties rise.
A CNN Opinion Research poll last week showed record US opposition to the war with 58 percent of respondents against the conflict.
That makes a tough political environment for Obama, who partly rose to power opposing one unpopular war, in Iraq, and who now must decide whether to escalate another.
He acknowledged the public's war fatigue in an appearance on "The Late Show" with David Letterman on CBS Monday.
"The country is weary of the war. What I'm trying to do at this point is to make sure that... we have got a coherent strategy that can work."
Some of Obama's top Democratic allies in Congress also are keen to further slow White House decision-making, and stave off more troop deployments.
Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Monday he agreed with McChrystal that "additional resources" would be required, but emphasized expanding the size and capability of the Afghan army and police.
Republicans, who broadly support the idea of more troops for Afghanistan, are piling pressure on Obama for a swift decision.
"It's time for the president to clarify where he stands on the strategy he has articulated, because the longer we wait the more we put our troops at risk," said Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner.