When President Barack Obama announced his new war plan for Afghanistan last year, the centrepiece of the strategy — and a big part of the rationale for sending 30,000 more troops — was to safeguard the Afghan people, provide them with a competent government and win their allegiance.
Eight months later, that counterinsurgency strategy has shown little success, as shown by flagging military and civilian operations in Marja and Kandahar and the spread of Taliban influence in other areas.
Instead, what has turned out to work well is an approach American officials have talked much less about: counterterrorism, military-speak for the targeted killings of insurgents from Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Faced with that reality, and the pressure of a self-imposed deadline to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011, the US administration is starting to count more heavily on the strategy of hunting down insurgents. The shift could change the nature of the war and potentially, in the view of some, hasten a political settlement with the Taliban.
Based on the US military experience in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, it is not clear that killing enemy fighters is sufficient to cripple an insurgency.
Still, commando raids over the last five months have taken more than 130 significant insurgents out of action, while interrogations of captured fighters have led to a fuller picture of the enemy, according to officials.
US intelligence reporting has recently revealed growing examples of Taliban fighters who are fearful of moving into higher-level command positions because of these lethal operations, according to a senior American military officer who follows Afghanistan closely.
Judging that they have gained some leverage over the Taliban, American officials are now debating when to try to bring them to the negotiating table to end the fighting. Rattling the Taliban, officials said, may open the door to reconciling with them more quickly.