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Obama to Explore New Approach in Afghanistan War

One week after the election, the Obama team is far from fleshing out how it will bring bin Laden closer to the forefront of the U.S. counterterrorism agenda, both rhetorically and substantively. Although Obama last week received his first high-level intelligence briefing as president-elect, members of his national security transition teams are still studying briefing materials the Bush administration has prepared for them. They have yet to fully examine available military and intelligence resources and how they are currently being used, and have not yet plotted their diplomatic approach to Pakistan, where U.S. intelligence officials believe bin Laden is hiding.

While emphasizing the importance of continuing U.S. operations against Pakistan-based Taliban fighters who attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the incoming administration intends to remind Americans how the fight against Islamist extremists began -- on Sept. 11, 2001, before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars -- and to underscore that al-Qaeda remains the nation's highest priority. "This is our enemy," one adviser said of bin Laden, "and he should be our principal target."

Obama said during the campaign that his administration would explore talks with countries such as Iran and Syria, rejecting bedrock Bush policy and rhetoric that some U.S. military officials believe may have outlived their usefulness.

Iran, on Afghanistan's western border, has played a mixed role over the years, at times indirectly cooperating with U.S. objectives and at times assisting the extremists. The Bush administration has kept Tehran at arm's length, but "as we look to the future, it would be helpful to have an interlocutor" to explore shared objectives, said one senior U.S. military official. The Iranians "don't want Sunni extremists in charge of Afghanistan any more than we do," he said.

Advisers also said Obama is open to supporting discussions between the Afghan government and "reconcilable" elements of the Taliban, a nascent effort of which the State Department has been fairly dismissive. Although it supports the terms the Afghan government has laid down -- abandoning violence and accepting the Afghan constitution -- the Bush administration sees "no serious indication from anybody on the Taliban side that they're interested," Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher said. "They keep hijacking buses, killing people and chopping their heads off. These are not people who have shown any serious desire to negotiate."

But the Pentagon, at least rhetorically, has left the door open wider. Senior officers describe a substantial portion of Taliban foot soldiers as more opportunistic than ideologically committed. Gates has spoken openly about the possibility of reconciliation, saying, "at the end of the day, that's how most wars end. . . . That's ultimately the exit strategy for all of us." Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said during a recent visit to Washington that the idea of "reconciliation, I think, is appropriate, and we'll be there to provide support within our mandate."

At the White House, presidential adviser Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute is leading an interagency assessment of the Afghanistan war, scheduled to be finished this month, that administration officials said will focus on enhancing support for provincial and local governments and building the Afghan police. Lute plans to travel to Brussels to summarize the review for NATO.

At the Pentagon, Mullen is overseeing an Afghanistan and Pakistan transition strategy and force-structure review by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former Iraq commander sworn in last month as head of the U.S. Central Command, is drawing up plans for his wider new responsibilities, which include Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mullen and Petraeus will remain in place when the Bush administration's civilian policymakers leave office in January. Petraeus, a senior Defense official said, has indicated he agrees with Obama's more regional approach to Afghanistan and welcomes "a debate about goals and how much is enough" in terms of nation-building there. "We are not going to seize the flag there and go home to a victory parade," this official said.


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