WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago, senior Bush administration officials gathered in secret with Afghanistan experts from NATO and the United Nations at an exclusive Washington club a few blocks from the White House. The group was there to deliver a grim message: the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse.
Their audience: advisers from the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama.
Over two days, according to participants in the discussions, the experts laid bare Afghanistan’s most pressing issues. They sought to make clear that the next president needed to have a plan for Afghanistan before he took office on Jan. 20. Otherwise, they said, it could be too late.
With American casualties on the rise and Taliban militias gaining new strength, experts on Afghanistan say the next president will need to decide swiftly if he intends to send more troops there, because even after deployment orders are issued, it could take weeks or months for American forces to arrive.
The next president will also face what could be politically fraught decisions about how aggressively to pursue a campaign against militants taking shelter in Pakistan’s tribal areas and whether to embrace negotiations under way in Afghanistan aimed at getting elements of the Taliban to lay down their arms. The discussions were started earlier this month in Saudi Arabia, and talks among Afghan officials and Taliban representatives have continued in Kabul at the request of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.
The Bush administration has been wary of these talks, on the grounds that they could involve fighters who have killed American troops, and in the belief that senior Taliban leaders have no interest in serious negotiations. But some senior American officials, including William B. Wood, the American ambassador in Kabul, are said to have pressed the White House to at least consider flexibility in its position.
The briefing on Afghanistan appears to have been the most extensive that Bush administration officials have provided on any issue to both presidential campaigns. It was organized by Barnett R. Rubin, an Afghanistan expert and a professor at New York University, and included John K. Wood, the senior Afghanistan director at the National Security Council; Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, a former American commander in Afghanistan who is now at NATO headquarters; and Kai Eide, the United Nations representative in Afghanistan, according to some participants.
“The intent was to ensure that everyone understand that the situation is very fast-moving, and if the new administration spends three months trying to figure out what to do, it’s too late,” said one administration official who participated in the discussion.
The Obama campaign sent Jonah Blank, a foreign policy specialist for Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., and Craig Mullaney, another Afghanistan adviser for Mr. Obama, participants said. They said the McCain campaign was represented by Lisa Curtis and Kori Schake, two former State Department officials.
The sessions were unclassified, but the participants agreed not to discuss their briefings or the contents of their discussions publicly.
The briefing was part of an effort by the departing Bush administration to ease the transition to the next team in a time of war and economic dislocation and allowed officials to try to have some influence over the next administration’s plans.
Both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain have promised to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan. Many in Washington are awaiting the results of a review to be led by Gen. David H. Petraeus, who takes over command of all United States forces in Iraq and Afghanistan at Central Command on Friday.
American intelligence officials believe that Taliban commanders are convinced that they are winning. Not only are they establishing themselves in larger swaths of the country, but their campaign of violence is shaking the will of European countries contributing troops to the NATO mission.
General Petraeus’s review will ultimately make recommendations about whether additional troops are needed in Afghanistan and, if so, how many. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top American commander in Afghanistan, has requested three additional brigade combat teams for the mission, above the one extra Army brigade and one Marine Corps battalion already approved by President Bush.
General McKiernan’s request, if approved, would be expected to add more than 15,000 combat and support troops to the mission, beyond the 8,000 or so scheduled to arrive in January under the orders issued by Mr. Bush.
American commanders have also spoken of the importance of better engaging Afghan tribes as a weapon against Taliban encroachment. Some have suggested using the model of the “tribal awakening” that occurred in Iraq, when the American military teamed with some former Sunni insurgents to try to drive out Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
But General McKiernan has cited significant differences in the history and culture of Afghanistan, as well as a greater complexity in the Afghan tribal system, as reasons why the Iraqi model does not directly apply in Afghanistan. Of the more than 400 major tribal networks inside Afghanistan, the general said recently, most have been “traumatized by over 30 years of war, so a lot of that traditional tribal structure has broken down.”
Thom Shanker and Peter Baker contributed reporting.
More Articles in Washington » A version of this article appeared in print on October 31, 2008, on page A11 of the New York edition.