Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to Afghanistan next week for a crucial conference that U.S. officials hope will clarify the long-term goals of an expensive, unpopular and increasingly uncertain war.
Clinton will join dozens of other foreign ministers in Kabul on July 19-20 when Afghan President Hamid Karzai will detail plans to boost governance, security and economic opportunity in the face of relentless attacks by Taliban insurgents.
U.S. officials want the meeting to highlight Afghanistan's drive to take on more responsibility for its future, one key to President Barack Obama's pledge to begin drawing down U.S. forces in July 2011.
But it is also likely to underscore the breadth of the administration's challenge and deepen doubts among U.S. lawmakers before November's congressional elections that -- after nine years and $345 billion -- the Afghan war is lurching in the wrong direction.
"The conference may help give a sense, not only to America but also to its allies, of what the cost of completion will be in Afghanistan and what the roadmap is going forward," said Brian Katulis, an Afghan analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.
"The key question is how does Afghanistan stand on its own. This could take us forward on how we define success."
Clinton will also hold talks in Pakistan, which is playing a key but mercurial role in Afghanistan even as it battles its own home-grown Islamist militants. She then heads to South Korea for talks on rising tensions with North Korea.
The White House said Obama's national security advisor, General Jim Jones, was in Kabul for talks with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and General David Petraeus, named by Obama as the new top field commander for Afghanistan last month.
At the Kabul conference, aid packages and spending plans will top the agenda as officials seek to intensify civilian projects intended to buttress Obama's December decision to send 30,000 additional soldiers, bringing total U.S. troop presence in the country to almost 100,000 by this summer.
U.S. officials also expect progress in Karzai's campaign to woo Taliban fighters off the battlefield and to explore talks with more senior Taliban members aimed at finding a political settlement to the conflict.
Clinton and other U.S. officials support outreach to "reformed" Taliban who renounce violence, cut ties to al Qaeda and pledge allegiance to the government -- which would appear to rule out hardline Taliban leaders.
But how the process unfolds, and what political offers are made, could have a huge impact on what sort of state eventually emerges in Afghanistan and whether it is one the United States can live with.
DOUBTS GROW IN CONGRESS
Clinton's visit to Afghanistan follows a grim couple of months in the conflict, which has seen the U.S.-led international force of some 150,000 suffer increasing casualties and deteriorating security.
Obama also sacked his chief commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, over comments he made disparaging civilian leaders, and replaced him with Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command who is credited with helping to turn around the war in Iraq.
While Petraeus' appointment was widely welcomed, a sense of gloom has enveloped the U.S. Congress as lawmakers press for clearer answers on what the U.S. goals are in Afghanistan and when it intends to leave.
"Many people are asking whether we have the right strategy. Some suggest this is a lost cause ... This is the time to ask hard questions," Senator John Kerry, the powerful head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a hearing.
Those questions will multiply as Obama's Democrats gird for November 2 congressional elections facing voters already angry over high unemployment and halting economic recovery.
"The war is certainly going to be a big campaign issue. The hope is that before the election the troop surge will be rolled out and there will be results to show," said Scott Worden, an Afghan analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"They are going to be looking hard for opportunities for optimism."
The Kabul conference follows a London meeting in January at which Karzai and his overseas partners agreed that Afghan forces should take the lead role in providing security in a number of provinces by late 2010 or early 2011.
It also committed foreign countries to support Afghanistan's efforts to develop the country -- although plans remain vague and dogged by charges of official Afghan corruption.
As U.S. casualties rise, some liberal Democrats are demanding a clearer exit plan. Republicans, meanwhile, have criticized the 2011 target date as a dangerous sign that the United States is not committed to victory in the war.
"The July 2011 withdrawal date has done tremendous damage to U.S. strategy and has undermined our position," said Lisa Curtis, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "They can recalibrate the withdrawal proposal. There is room to redefine it."
U.S. officials already appear to be doing that, promising that the scale and pace of any U.S. drawdown will be dictated by conditions on the ground -- a sign to both Karzai and the Taliban that the United States is ready to keep fighting.