Afghanistan risks sliding into a failed state and becoming the "forgotten war" because of deteriorating international support and a growing violent insurgency, according to an independent study.
The assessment, co-chaired by retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones and former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, serves as a warning to the Bush administration at a time military and congressional officials are debating how best to juggle stretched warfighting resources.
The administration wants to re-energize anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where al Qaeda is regenerating. But the U.S. still remains heavily invested in Iraq, and officials are sending strong signals that troop reductions there will slow or stop altogether this summer.
"Afghanistan stands at a crossroads," concludes the study, an advance copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. "The progress achieved after six years of international engagement is under serious threat from resurgent violence, weakening international resolve, mounting regional challenges and a growing lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan people about the future direction of their country."
A major issue has been trying to win the war with "too few military forces and insufficient economic aid," the study adds.
Among the group's nearly three dozen recommendations: increase NATO force levels and military equipment sent to Afghanistan, decouple U.S. management of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, establish a special envoy to coordinate all U.S. policy on Afghanistan, and champion a unified strategy among partner nations to stabilize the country in five years.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was not familiar with the study's findings, but he struck a more optimistic tone on Afghanistan's future.
"I would say that the security situation is good," Gates told The Associated Press. "We want to make sure it gets better, and I think there's still a need to coordinate civil reconstruction, the economic development side of it."
Gates said more troops are needed in Afghanistan, but "certainly not ours." When asked how many more NATO troops might be needed, he said that number should be determined by ground commanders.
Sen. John Kerry said it was "past time for wakeup calls" and that a "comprehensive, thoughtful approach" in Afghanistan was urgently needed.
"The same extremist group which plotted the attacks of 9/11 are reconstituting themselves on the Afghan border and grow more organized by the day, making the stakes higher and higher," said Kerry, D-Mass., a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Jones-Pickering assessment, slated for public release on Wednesday, says the U.S. should rethink its military and economic strategy in Afghanistan in large part because of deteriorating support among voters in NATO countries.
If international forces are pulled, the fragile Afghan government would "likely fall apart," the report warns.
The study was a voluntary effort coordinated by the Center for the Study of the Presidency, a nonpartisan organization in Washington, as a follow-on to the Iraq Study Group. That study group was a congressionally mandated blue-ribbon panel hailed as the first major bipartisan assessment on the Iraq war since the 2003 invasion.
While the Afghanistan study has not created the same buzz as the Iraq assessment, the center's latest findings still are likely to wield political clout because of those involved.
Last year, Jones led a high-profile study on Iraq security forces, which was used by lawmakers to challenge President Bush's own assessments. Most recently, the retired Marine Corps general, known for his outspoken independence, was tapped to advise Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on security aspects of the new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Pickering was a longtime U.S. ambassador and a former undersecretary of state.
Panel members include Charles Robb, a former Democratic senator who served on the Iraq Study Group, and David Abshire, who helped organize the Iraq study. Abshire is president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency.
According to the report, the center decided to initiate the study after ISG discussions made clear that Afghanistan was at risk of becoming "the forgotten war."
"Participants and witnesses pointed to the danger of losing the war in Afghanistan unless a reassessment took place of the effort being undertaken in that country by the United States, NATO and the international community," the study states.
Similar problems were identified in two other assessments also due for release Wednesday, including one by the Atlantic Council in Washington, which Jones chairs. A separate study, led by Harlan Ullman, an adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the National Defense University, included specific proposals to rejuvenate Afghanistan's agricultural sector.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was expected to be briefed Wednesday on Afghanistan by intelligence officials. On Thursday, the panel will convene an open hearing, featuring testimony from Jones and Pickering. Also testifying Thursday will be Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia.