A damning confidential report by the American commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan has warned that the war is likely to "result in failure" within a year for the West without urgent reinforcements.
General Stanley McChrystal also stated in the leaked document that the tide in favour of the Taliban could not be reversed without strategic changes.
In his sombre assessment, which is due to shape President Barack Obama's policy in Afghanistan, the General stated: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) ... risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible ... Although considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress, many indicators suggest the overall effort is deteriorating."
The report, leaked to The Washington Post and confirmed by General McChrystal's office as genuine, was sent to the White House in August. At the weekend, Mr Obama remained non-committal about the approach he planned to take in Afghanistan.
"We're not going to put the cart before the horse and just think by sending more troops we're automatically going to make Americans safe," he said. "I don't want to put the resource question before the strategy question." Yesterday, he said that the report had not yet been followed by a formal request for additional troops.
The Independent has previously revealed that General McChrystal has told senior Afghan officials that he will ask for 20,000 more international troops to execute his plans. Military sources have said that Britain is likely to contribute about 2,000 of them.
Although Gordon Brown turned down a previous recommendation for an increase from the service chiefs, backed by the then defence secretary John Hutton, the Cabinet is now said to be ready to back the reinforcements. The size of the Afghan army would also be raised from 92,000 to 240,000 and the police from 82,000 to 160,000 by 2012.
General McChrystal's new strategy would result in Western troops being further exposed to roadside bombs. He stressed that soldiers would have to change their operations culture by spending "as little time as possible in armoured vehicles or behind the walls of a forward operating base". This will mean greater risks, but Nato "cannot succeed if it is unwilling to share risk, at least equally, with the people."
As a result of being "preoccupied with protection of our own forces," the report states, "we have operated in a manner that distances us – physically and psychologically – from the people we seek to protect ... Isaf [International Security Assistance Force] personnel must be seen as guests of the Afghan people and their government, not an occupying army."
That strategic change, he emphasised, was as crucial as additional numbers. Bob Woodward, the journalist who obtained a copy of the report, said: "[McChrystal] says if they don't endorse this full counterinsurgency strategy, don't even give me the troops because it won't work."
This year has been the most deadly for international forces since the 2001 invasion, with more than 350 troops killed. General McChrystal warned of an ever-increasing death toll and said that there had to be an emphasis on winning over moderate insurgents.
That strategy echoed what the man tasked with carrying out this process, the British Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb, expressed to The Independent last week when he said that "some young fighters have done nothing wrong and their grievances have to be addressed."
General McChrystal said that Nato "requires a credible program to offer eligible insurgents reasonable incentives to stop fighting ... They will have to learn that "there are now three outcomes instead of two" for enemy fighters: not only capture or death, but also "reintegration".
Underlining that political reforms were as critical as ones in the military, the Isaf chief presented a bleak picture of a fractured society with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, riddled with corruption.
The result has been a "crisis of confidence among Afghans – in both their government and the international community – that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents. Further, a perception our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents," he said.
Reinforcements would harden that resolve, he said. Republicans cautiously welcomed the prospect at the weekend. But Senator Lindsey Graham said: "General McChrystal's ready to hit the send button in terms of how many more troops he needs, and the longer we wait the harder it is."
A general speaks: McChrystal's words
*THE MILITARY SITUATION: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months)... risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
*THE INSURGENT NETWORK: "Afghanistan's insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan... Senior leaders are based in Pakistan, [and] are linked to al-Qa'ida. Afghanistan does require Pakistani cooperation and action against violent militancy."
*THE AFGHAN GOVERNMENT: "The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption... and ISAF's own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government."
*THE STRATEGIC MISTAKES: Pre-occupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us from the people we seek to protect... The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves.