White House officials say the focus of the President Barack Obama's war strategy will be on defeating al Qaeda in Pakistan, while downplaying the need to completely eliminate the Taliban in Afghanistan, reports CBS News chief White House correspondent Chip Reid.
The president appears inclined to send only as many more U.S. troops as needed to keep al Qaeda at bay, a senior administration official said.
The sharpened focus by Mr. Obama's team on fighting al Qaeda above all other goals, while downgrading the emphasis on the Taliban, comes in the midst of an intensely debated administration review of the increasingly unpopular eight-year-old war.
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Though aides stress that the president's final decision on any changes is still at least two weeks away, the emerging thinking suggests that he would be very unlikely to favor a large military increase of the kind being advocated by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal's troop request is said to include a range of options, from adding as few as 10,000 combat troops to - the general's strong preference - as many as 40,000.
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Mr. Obama's developing strategy on the Taliban will "not tolerate their return to power," the senior official said in an interview with The Associated Press. But the U.S. would fight only to keep the Taliban from retaking control of Afghanistan's central government - something it is now far from being capable of - and from giving renewed sanctuary in Afghanistan to al Qaeda, the official said.
Critics say the strategy is deeply flawed - that without a full-fledged effort to crush the Taliban, it will retake control of Afghanistan and reopen the door for al Qaeda which will establish bases there just as they did before 9/11, Reid reports.
"A Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will be wide open for al Qaeda to expand its current sanctuaries and safe havens and I would argue al Qaeda's nothing without sanctuaries and safe havens," said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University.
Bowing to the reality that the Taliban is too ingrained in Afghanistan's culture to be entirely defeated, the administration is prepared, as it has been for some time, to accept some Taliban role in parts of Afghanistan, the official said. That could mean paving the way for Taliban members willing to renounce violence to participate in a central government - though there has been little receptiveness to this among the Taliban. It might even mean ceding some regions of the country to the Taliban.
In Kabul on Thursday, a and killed 17 people in the second major attack in the city in less than a month. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Mr. Obama has talked positively about reaching out to moderates in the Taliban since he first announced a new Afghanistan strategy in March. It would be akin to, though more complicated than, the successful efforts in Iraq to persuade Sunni Muslim insurgents to cooperate with U.S. forces against al Qaeda there.
Mr. Obama has conferred nearly every day this week on the war, and was continuing that Thursday afternoon with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
On Wednesday, the eighth anniversary of the war launched by President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mr. Obama and more than a dozen officials in his war council met for three hours to focus on Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan. Another of those larger discussions - the fourth of five currently scheduled - is set for Friday, on Afghanistan. That meeting also could feature the group's first discussion of specific troop options.
The White House says that while there are only about 100 al Qaeda in Afghanistan, there are thousands in Pakistan, including Osama bin Laden and his top deputies, reports Reid. Using special forces, pilotless drones and a more aggressive effort form the Pakistani army, the strategy has recently led to a series of successful attacks.
"Because of our efforts al Qaeda and its allies have not only lost operational capacity, they've lost legitimacy and credibility," Mr. Obama said.
In the first two of the sessions, which are taking place in the secure Situation Room in the White House basement, Mr. Obama kept returning to one question for his advisers: Who is our adversary, the official said.
The answer to Mr. Obama's question was al Qaeda, as it was in March when Obama first announced an Afghanistan strategy.
But amid changing circumstances in Afghanistan, the implications of that renewed determination for the current war debate are many.
The U.S. fight in Afghanistan is against the Taliban, now increasingly being defined by the Obama team as distinct from al Qaeda. While still dangerous, the Taliban is seen as an indigenous movement with almost entirely local and territorial aims, less of a threat to the U.S. than the terrorist network.
Mr. Obama's team believes some elements in the Taliban are aligned with al Qaeda, with its transnational reach and aims of attacking the West, but probably not the majority and mostly for tactical rather than ideological reasons, the official said.
"They're not the same type of group," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "It's certainly not backed up by any of the intelligence."
That leaves the primary aim in Afghanistan to deny al Qaeda any ability to regroup there as it did when the Taliban was in power before the 2001 invasion that ousted them. And this points to a smaller military increase in Afghanistan and a bigger focus on surgical strikes against terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere - essentially the approach being advocated by Biden as an alternative to the McChrystal recommendation for a fuller counterinsurgency effort inside Afghanistan.
Biden has argued for keeping the American force there around the 68,000 already authorized, including the 21,000 extra troops Mr. Obama ordered earlier this year, but significantly increasing the use of unmanned Predator drones and special forces that have been successful in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere.
There also is increasing reluctance among Mr. Obama's advisers to commit large additional numbers of troops because of concerns about the impact on already severely strained U.S. forces.
The administration has been encouraged by the Pakistani government's recent willingness to more aggressively battle extremists inside its borders. Getting additional cooperation from Pakistan is delicate, as the anti-extremist operations remain extremely controversial in that country, and the U.S.-backed civilian government in Islamabad is weak. But the administration sees opportunity there nonetheless.
Clinton has not tipped her hand as to how she is leaning in the sessions, according to aides. While she is broadly supportive of building up troop levels - although not necessarily in the numbers favored by McChrystal - she also believes the military cannot be the only focus, said the aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to detail her views.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, long wary of a large troop presence in Afghanistan, appears to have grown more comfortable with the prospect of a moderate, middle-path increase.
Many lawmakers from Mr. Obama's own Democratic Party do not want to see additional U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan. According to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, public support for the war has dropped to 40 percent from 44 percent in July.
Republicans, meanwhile, are urging Obama to heed the military commanders' calls soon or risk failure. "Unnecessary delay could undermine our opportunity for success," House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said Thursday.