MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. In the past several months, more American soldiers have died in Afghanistan than in Iraq. One of the deadliest areas is Afghanistan's eastern border region. Taliban and other militants slip over that border from Pakistan to stage attacks. All this week, we're reporting on the related conflicts in those two countries. Today, NPR's Tom Bowman reports from Afghanistan on the role of NATO and U.S. forces.

TOM BOWMAN: American soldiers stroll through a marketplace an hour's drive from their largest base at Bagram Air Field on their way to an Afghan police station where talk turns to the ever-rising number of ambushes and roadside bombs in Kapisa province, northeast of Bagram.

Major BEN RICHARDSON (National Guard Officer): We have seen an increase, particularly seen an increase in roadside bombs in the last few months.

BOWMAN: Major Ben Richardson helps with the police training here. He says the Afghan and U.S. forces beat back the insurgents, only to see more replace them.

Major RICHARDSON: They'll get an influx of foreign fighters, or fighters at least not from the area, not necessarily from Pakistan, but not local Taliban. Sort of a backbone injection, if you will. And then you'll see an increase in fighting again.

BOWMAN: Those backbone injections have led to a 40 percent increase in attacks over the past year. Commanders say they're facing larger, more sophisticated fights that are leading to higher numbers of American casualties. Now commanders say Taliban fighters are threatening the approaches to the capital of Kabul itself, bombing and attacking the four main roads leading into the city, much like Islamist fighters did successfully against the Soviets some 20 years ago. Recently, an American unit was replaced with a larger French force in the Tagab Valley of Kapisa province. Brigadier General Mark Milley stabs at a point on a map with his finger at his office at Bagram Air Base. He's a burly and talkative Princeton graduate with deep circles under his eyes.

Brigadier General MARK MILLEY (U.S. Army): We think we've had very, very good success. It's a little too early to tell.

BOWMAN: But Milley and other senior officers know that's only a start. There just aren't enough troops to hold ground.

Brig. Gen. MILLEY: You can't be everywhere. And given the number of troops we have, we have to be selective on where we apply them in order to gain the greatest effect.

BOWMAN: Two, maybe three more American brigades will be coming here next spring or summer. Together with NATO and Afghan forces, the total could reach a quarter million men under arms sometime next year. Some argue the need may be as high as 400,000 to protect the Afghan population spread around this mountainous land that's a third larger than Iraq with at least three million more people.

Major General JEFFREY SCHLOESSER (U.S. Army): I clearly think we need more troops. There's no doubt about that.

BOWMAN: Major General Jeffrey Schloesser commands all U.S. and allied forces in eastern Afghanistan. He won't say how many more troops are needed, but the goal is more Afghan forces.

Maj. Gen. SCHLOESSER: I'm very much encouraged by seeing the increase in the Afghans. It's the Afghan face meeting with the Afghan that really changes that person's perception on a daily basis.

BOWMAN: Boosting the number of Afghan forces will take time, says Brigadier General Tony Ierardi, one of the top trainers for the Afghan army.

Brigadier General TONY IERARDI (U.S. Army): We anticipate the Afghans building to a 122,000 force structure somewhere in the 2013 timeframe.

BOWMAN: Faced with mounting attacks, the White House and the Pentagon are trying to come up with a new strategy for the country, sending more troops and development money, working with Pakistan to stop cross-border attacks. Among the questions being asked: Can Afghan forces be rapidly expanded by organizing, even arming, the country's tribes, much like tribes in Iraq were brought into the fight against al-Qaeda two years ago starting in Anbar province? Again, General Schloesser.

Maj. Gen. SCHLOESSER: Well, I don't think there's any broad consensus of arming the tribes, and there's a fear that going back to any kind of warlordism or armed militias is a step backwards. But I do think that there is an attempt to empower tribal elders and tribes to try to help in security in Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: Empower the tribes, not necessarily arm them. That's what the Afghan government wants. Some American officers say there's no need to arm tribesmen already toting AK-47s. So talk now is how to organize many of the 400 Afghan tribes by offering payments, communications equipment, and other supplies to aid them in fighting the insurgents. Again, General Milley.

Brig. Gen. MILLEY: There are valuable lessons from Iraq that can be applied here. The Anbar Awakening, the tribal engagement that was done in Anbar, may be one of those lessons. We'll have to wait and see.

BOWMAN: One thing missing here is the luxury of waiting. With a lack of troops, American and NATO forces are turning increasingly to a tool they have in large numbers: bombs. Airstrikes have tripled in the past two years from hundreds to thousands. That's led to more civilian deaths, outrage from humanitarian groups and the government of President Hamid Karzai. One of the men who calls in airstrikes is Matt, an Air Force captain who asked that his full name not be used. He works with a Green Beret team and Afghan commandos outside the southern city of Kandahar. Matt says the rules governing airstrikes have been tightened recently by American commanders worried that inside a house or building might be innocents.

MATT (Captain, U.S. Air Force): If you think that there might be, then you don't bomb it. That's the bottom line.

BOWMAN: But he admits that in the midst of a serious firefight, that rule might have to be ignored.

MATT: Now, there could be a situation where the commandos, our Afghan counterparts, and us are under such withering fire that we know we're going to take mass casualties if we don't do something, and that's the only avenue of approach. The ground forces commander has to make that decision.

BOWMAN: Nate Fick understands the pressure facing American commanders. He's a former Marine combat officer and now a defense analyst who visited Afghanistan this summer for a month. Fick says a more central problem is a lack of a plan that NATO and the U.S. - even all U.S. government agencies - can agree on.

Mr. NATE FICK (Defense Analyst; Former Marine Combat Officer): We have a soundbite about a representative Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors, but we don't actually have a defined strategic objective.

BOWMAN: An American helicopter flies through the towering Hindu Kush range in eastern Afghanistan. In a lush green valley far below, a thin line of asphalt is a sign of progress, a main road that by next fall could link Afghanistan and Pakistan. The helicopter lands at a remote camp at Gardez. State Department aid worker Rick Carbone says U.S. and Afghan troops have pushed out insurgents, but he worries about the project as it heads into a 9,000-foot pass.

Mr. RICK CARBONE (Aid Worker, State Department): Well, the hard part's coming next year, because they haven't really started construction inside the pass yet. And the pass is an ambusher's heaven.

BOWMAN: The hard part's already here for U.S. troops finding increasing numbers of insurgents, waiting for reinforcements. Tom Bowman, NPR News.

BLOCK: Our series on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan continues throughout the week. The next two reports will focus on Pakistan.

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