WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan's political future and will determine how many more U.S. troops to send to the war based only on keeping al-Qaida at bay, a senior administration official said Thursday.
The sharpened focus by Obama's team on fighting al-Qaida 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 war.
Aides stress that the president's decision on specific troop levels and the other elements of a revamped approach is still at least two weeks away, and they say Obama has not tipped his hand in meetings that will continue at the White House on Friday.
But the thinking emerging from the strategy formulation portion of the debate offers a clue that Obama would be 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.
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-Qaida, the official said.
The official is involved in the discussions and was authorized to speak about them but not to be identified by name because the review is still under way.
Bowing to the reality that the Taliban is too ingrained in Afghanistan's culture to be entirely defeated, the administration is prepared 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 – the kind of peace talks advocated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to little receptiveness from the Taliban. It might even mean ceding some regions of the country to the Taliban.
In Kabul on Thursday, a suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle outside the Indian Embassy and killed 17 people in the second major attack in the city in less than a month. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
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-Qaida there.
Obama has conferred nearly every day this week on the war, and continued 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, 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.
In the first two of the sessions, which are taking place in the secure Situation Room in the White House basement, Obama kept returning to one question for his advisers: Who is our adversary, the official said.
The answer was al-Qaida, as it was back in March.
Amid changing circumstances in Afghanistan, the renewed determination has big implications for the current war debate.
There now are no more than 100 al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Instead, the U.S. fight in Afghanistan is against the Taliban, now increasingly defined by the Obama team as distinct from al-Qaida. While still dangerous, the Taliban is seen as an indigenous movement with almost entirely local and territorial aims and far less of a threat to the U.S.
Obama's team believes some elements in the Taliban are aligned with al-Qaida, 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-Qaida any ability to regroup there as it did when the Taliban was in power before the U.S. ousted them.
A focus on al-Qaida is the driving force behind an 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 Obama ordered earlier this year, but significantly increasing the use of unmanned Predator drones and special forces for the kind of surgical anti-terrorist strikes that have been successful in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere.
There also is increasing reluctance among Obama's advisers to commit large additional numbers of troops because of concerns about the impact on already severely strained U.S. forces and the troubled Karzai government.
In Pakistan, however, the administration has been encouraged by the government's recent willingness to aggressively battle extremists inside its borders. Getting additional cooperation from Pakistan is delicate, as the anti-extremist operations remain extremely controversial there and the U.S.-backed civilian government in Islamabad is weak. But the administration sees opportunity there nonetheless.
Clinton has not revealed 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 bigger numbers favored by McChrystal – she also believes economic and other civilian efforts must be prominent parts of the plan too, 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 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.
Rep. David Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who led an effort in 2007 to block money for the Iraq war, emerged with deep concerns from an hourlong Capitol Hill briefing Thursday for House lawmakers of both parties by Obama national security adviser James Jones. Obey cited the high cost to the country of a ramped-up war, as well as doubts about the ability of the Afghan and Pakistan governments to be effective partners.
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.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan, Pamela Hess, Matthew Lee and Ann Sanner contributed to this report.