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NATO Officials Say They Will Back Afghan Effort to Turn Insurgents Against Taliban

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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009

The United States and NATO countries fighting in Afghanistan have told President Hamid Karzai's government that they expect him to remain in office for another five-year term and will work with him on an expanded campaign to turn insurgent fighters against the Taliban and other militant groups.

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other NATO foreign ministers, meeting Friday in New York with their Afghan counterpart, reached "consensus" that Karzai would probably "continue to be president," whether through a runoff or as the legitimate winner of more than 50 percent of votes cast in disputed Aug. 20 elections, an Obama administration official said.

What Karzai has called "reconciliation" with insurgents who agree to lay down their arms is emerging as a major factor in administration deliberations about a way forward in Afghanistan, officials said. Along with plans to increase the size of the Afghan security forces, the U.S. military is developing programs to offer monetary and other inducements to insurgents it thinks are only loosely tied to the Taliban and other militant groups.

"I think that success in Afghanistan looks a great deal like success in Iraq," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Sunday. The situation in Iraq began to improve after Sunni tribes turned against al-Qaeda insurgents and accepted a security alliance with U.S. forces.

Success in Iraq, however, also depended on a significant increase in U.S. troop deployments, a question that remains unanswered in Afghanistan. Gates said that he expects in "a matter of weeks" a White House decision on a revised strategy, and whether to supply U.S. commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal some or all of the additional troops he has requested.

"I don't expect this to be a protracted process," Gates said on ABC's "This Week." On Tuesday, the White House will host the first of a series of National Security Council meetings to review the strategy President Obama laid out in March, along with McChrystal's recommendations for a stepped-up counterinsurgency effort. McChrystal, in an assessment sent to Washington late last month, said the current strategy will fail without more troops.

The U.S. force in Afghanistan is scheduled to reach 68,000 by year's end. The number of troops McChrystal has requested remains unknown, although Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said he spoke with Obama on Saturday, called it "one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington. It's 30,000 to 40,000 troops." McCain also spoke on ABC.

Gates has said he is still thinking about his position on a troop increase. But he appeared to disagree with the view of a number of senior administration officials, led by Vice President Biden, that the U.S. effort should move away from full-fledged counterinsurgency toward a greater emphasis on targeted attacks on insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan with drone-fired missiles and other standoff weaponry.

That strategy, Gates said, "is only possible if you have the kind of intelligence that allows you to target the terrorists. And the only way you get that intelligence is by being on the ground. . . . You can't do this from a distance or remotely."

The imposition of a timeline for withdrawing troops, as some Democrats have proposed, "would be a strategic mistake" with "catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, al-Qaeda recruitment, operations, fundraising, and so on," Gates said.

Afghanistan's unsettled politics have been a major concern as the administration begins its deliberations. In addition to McChrystal's report, Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry has submitted assessments of the political scene; they have reinforced longstanding U.S. judgments that elements of Karzai's government, including the president himself -- are incompetent and corrupt.

The major elements of counterinsurgency, including economic development and building the Afghan national force, require an Afghan partner seen as legitimate by its citizens. Deciding that they will have to deal with Karzai enables the administration and its allies to factor his limitations into their decision-making, officials said.

Although Afghanistan's electoral commission has declared Karzai won more than 54 percent of the vote, a U.N. panel is investigating fraud charges. It is conceivable that invalidated ballots could bring Karzai below the halfway mark, requiring a runoff with his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

At the Friday meeting in New York, chaired by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and attended by Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Spanta, participants disagreed about the latest date a second presidential round could be held. Some said it could be as late as the first week in November before severe winter weather makes it impossible, but all agreed that delaying the election until spring would "only benefit the Taliban," an administration official said.

U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide gave the group, called the "Friends of Afghanistan," a 25-minute update on the political situation. All the foreign ministers spoke, including Spanta, Clinton, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

While the consensus among them, agreed in Spanta's presence, was that Karzai would prevail even in a runoff, Eide emphasized that "the way he gets there is very important," an official said, advising that the president must let the fraud investigation run its course and accept its results.


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