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Emerging Strategy Calls for Weakening, Not Routing, Taliban

Marines take up positions during an operation in Helmand. U.S. officials said Thursday that the emerging goal is to weaken the Taliban to the degree that it cannot challenge the Afghan government or provide haven to al-Qaeda.
Marines take up positions during an operation in Helmand. U.S. officials said Thursday that the emerging goal is to weaken the Taliban to the degree that it cannot challenge the Afghan government or provide haven to al-Qaeda. (Reuters)

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

As it reviews its Afghanistan policy for the second time this year, the Obama administration has concluded that the Taliban cannot be eliminated as a political or military movement, regardless of how many combat forces are sent into battle.

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The Taliban and the question of how the administration should regard the Islamist movement have assumed a central place in the policy deliberations underway at the White House, according to administration officials participating in the meetings.

Based on a stark assessment by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and six hours of debate among the senior national security staff members so far, the administration has established guidelines on its strategy to confront the group.

The goal, senior administration officials said Thursday, is to weaken the Taliban to the degree that it cannot challenge the Afghan government or reestablish the haven it provided for al-Qaeda before the 2001 U.S. invasion. Those objectives appear largely consistent with McChrystal's strategy, which he says "cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces" but should center on persuading the population to support the government.

"The Taliban is a deeply rooted political movement in Afghanistan, so that requires a different approach than al-Qaeda," said a senior administration official who has participated in the meetings but has not advocated a particular strategy.

Some inside the White House have cited Hezbollah, the armed Lebanese political movement, as an example of what the Taliban could become. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, but the group has political support within Lebanon and participates, sometimes through intimidation, in the political process.

Some White House advisers have noted that although Hezbollah is a source of regional instability, it is not a threat to the United States. The senior administration official said the Hezbollah example has not been cited specifically to President Obama and has been raised only informally outside the Situation Room meetings.

"People who study Islamist movements have made the connection," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Obama identified al-Qaeda as the chief target of his Afghanistan policy in March, when he announced that he would dispatch an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to the region, and his advisers have emphasized during the policy review that the administration views al-Qaeda and the Taliban as philosophically distinct organizations. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that "there is clearly a difference between" the Taliban and "an entity that, through a global, transnational jihadist network, would seek to strike the U.S. homeland."

"I think the Taliban are, obviously, exceedingly bad people that have done awful things," Gibbs said. "Their capability is somewhat different, though, on that continuum of transnational threats."

While some White House officials are advocating a narrower approach in Afghanistan focused first on al-Qaeda, some senior military leaders have endorsed McChrystal's call to vastly expand the war effort against insurgents, including those from the Taliban. The general is seeking tens of thousands of additional troops to carry out his strategy, and Obama will take up the specifics of that request for the first time Friday during a meeting at the White House with his national security team.

In his 66-page assessment of the war, McChrystal warns that the next 12 months will probably determine whether U.S. and international forces can regain the initiative from the Taliban.


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