Emerging Goal for Afghanistan: Weaken, Not Vanquish, Taliban

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.

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.

McChrystal, whom Obama named in May as commander of the 100,000 U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, writes that "most insurgents are Afghans" and "are directed by a small number of Afghan senior leaders based in Pakistan." He says in the report that the Taliban operates a "shadow government" that "actively seeks to control the population and displace the national government and traditional power structures."

But weakening the Taliban politically, as McChrystal and the emerging White House strategy calls for, has been complicated by recent events on the ground.

For example, McChrystal's strategy relies on building an effective Afghan government as an alternative to the Taliban. But that goal has been undermined by widespread allegations of electoral fraud appearing to benefit President Hamid Karzai. Such allegations have raised questions about the legitimacy of his government.

At the same time, McChrystal is redeploying troops to towns and cities to better protect the Afghan population. The decision effectively leaves large stretches of territory to the Taliban, made up of a variety of groups united by an opposition to the international military presence. McChrystal argues in his assessment that securing the population and building a viable political alternative to the Taliban are at times more important than holding territory in such a counterinsurgency campaign.

Asked how many troops would be needed to weaken the Taliban to an acceptable degree, the senior administration official said, "That's the question. That's the sweet spot we're looking for." About 68,000 U.S. troops are already scheduled to be on the ground in Afghanistan by the end of the year.

Obama has informed staff members and congressional leaders that he does not contemplate reducing the U.S. military presence there in the near term, and even those within the administration who argue against additional combat forces support maintaining the number of troops already there.

Saying that additional troops would provide the Taliban with fodder for further propaganda, Vice President Biden and some other senior White House officials have pushed an alternative. They have outlined a plan that would maintain current combat troop levels, speed up training of Afghan forces, intensify drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives and help the nuclear-armed government of Pakistan counter the Taliban within its borders.

"If you accept as a premise that you will not eradicate every last element of the Taliban, preventing it from providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda or threatening the government will still require resources," the official said. "That's why we're not talking about only a counterterrorism campaign."

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