The Pentagon confirmed on Monday that the US military and its NATO partners were reviewing plans for Afghanistan, rocked by its bloodiest year since 2001 amid a fierce Taliban resurgence.
The sharp rise in violence in Afghanistan contrasts strongly with the improvement in security in Iraq, where some 160,000 US forces are concentrated.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates "encouraged NATO to take a longer range view on Afghanistan" during talks with ministers from eight NATO countries in Edinburgh last week, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
"As a result of that Centcom (US Central Command) will tell you they are reviewing their own Afghanistan plan," he said, adding "these are things that complement each other."
2007 was the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the extremist Taliban were ousted from power in late 2001. The US has just 26,000 troops deployed there.
There were 77 suicide attacks just in the first six months -- about twice the number for the same period last year and 26 times higher than from January to June 2005, according to a United Nations survey. Toward the end of this year that figure had risen to around 140.
The New York Times reported Sunday that the United States had launched a thorough review of its military, economic and diplomatic strategy amid worries about the lack of progress.
Pressed by the US to contribute more to Afghanistan, NATO, which runs the 40,000-strong International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, is also reviewing ways to confront rising Taliban attacks, an Al-Qaeda resurgence and a bumper opium crop.
Asked about the reported US review, State Department spokesman Tom Casey downplayed the idea that a fundamental strategy review was underway.
"Look, my understanding is the administration is continuously reviewing its plans and efforts to implement our strategy for Afghanistan," Casey said.
"But I'm not aware that there is any effort to devise a new strategy as opposed to simply a continuing effort to implement the strategy that exists."
"There's an ongoing effort at implementing our strategy. And that certainly includes looking at our full range of diplomatic tools that are available, including reconstruction support and other kinds of efforts," he continued.
"But, again, that is different than at least the assertion I saw, which was that somehow there was a fundamental rethinking of the strategy or a review of the strategy with an eye toward changing it."
At the end of the Edinburgh talks, Gates told reporters the ministers agreed unanimously to draft a three- to five-year "strategic concept" laying out goals and benchmarks for the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The United States would lead in formulating the plan with inputs from other countries in hopes that it will be embraced by the alliance as a whole at a summit in Bucharest early next year, he said.
Britain, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Romania, Estonia and the United States all have troops with ISAF's 11,000-strong command in southern Afghanistan, where insurgent violence has increased sharply over the past year.
But NATO has so far failed to provide three infantry battalions, some 3,000 trainers and 20 transport and attack helicopters promised by allies.
"There is no secret that some of the capabilities have been lacking and that we have been wanting to fill in, in order to achieve greater progress at a faster rate," a Pentagon spokesman said privately, before noting: "I don't know that I would call it a review of strategy."
The United States is also reportedly searching for an international coordinator to help synchronize all the efforts on Afghanistan.
Persistent rumors say British diplomat Paddy Ashdown, the former UN representative to Bosnia-Hercegovina in 2002-2005, could be tapped for the job.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said: "I can assure you that there are many people considering the situation in Afghanistan on an ongoing basis. They're constantly reviewing our posture."
But she denied that the same kind of major review was underway as happened over Iraq, which led to the deployment of an extra 30,000 troops to the country at the beginning of the year.