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Obama seeks Afghanistan data to determine U.S. troop levels

Ahmed Wali Karzai, left, a brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaks to tribal leaders.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, left, a brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaks to tribal leaders. (Ed Wray/associated Press)

In reviewing McChrystal's bracing assessment of the war, the president and his senior advisers have concluded that the Taliban cannot be eliminated as a military and political force, regardless of how many more troops are deployed.

The acknowledgment is behind Obama's request for an analysis of which of Afghanistan's 34 provinces can be left to local leaders, perhaps including elements of the Taliban unaligned with al-Qaeda. Administration officials have said that under any strategy, the Taliban would not be allowed to threaten the Kabul government or provide sanctuary for al-Qaeda, whose leaders operate largely from the tribal areas across the border in Pakistan.

"How much of the country can we just leave to be run by the locals?" said one U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy, who discussed the White House request on the condition of anonymity. "How do you separate those who have taken up arms because they oppose the presence of foreigners in their area, because they're getting paid to fight us because we're there, from those who want to restore a Taliban government? How many of the people who we're fighting actually share al-Qaeda's ideology?"

Obama's interest in provincial allies also reflects the administration's growing disenchantment with President Hamid Karzai and his inability to extend his government's authority beyond Kabul during his nearly eight years in office. Provincial governments and tribal structures have long exerted more power than the central government, which many Afghans view as remote, corrupt and ineffective. Another U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy said, "Most of Afghanistan that's stable is under local control."

"The question is: Can you get benign local control in more places?" the official said. "And will that be easier to achieve, and more effective, than trying to establish more central government control?"

Refining a strategy

Critics of ceding authority to local power brokers point to Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, where Karzai's brother Ahmed Wali Karzai has been given wide latitude to run the municipality and the surrounding province. Security in the area has deteriorated over the past year, while the cultivation of opium-producing poppies has soared.

Some U.S. and Afghan officials contend that Ahmed Wali, who heads the Kandahar provincial council, has been reluctant to crack down on drug traffickers -- and the Taliban fighters who protect them -- because he is involved in narcotics smuggling, an accusation he has repeatedly denied. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Ahmed Wali has been on the CIA's payroll for much of the past eight years.

"Ahmed Wali illustrates the challenge we face across the country," a senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy said Wednesday. "Do we pay him off to help us -- whatever help that may be -- or is our goal of improving the government more important than doing these kinds of deals?"

Obama is refining his strategy from several options outlined during more than 15 hours of meetings in the White House, administration officials say.

Some White House officials, including Biden, have advocated a strategy that would focus primarily on counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda. The vice president has argued for preserving the current U.S. troop level of 68,000, expediting the training of Afghan forces, intensifying Predator drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives and supporting the Pakistani government against the Taliban within its borders.

But the deepening conflict is complicating those plans. For example, administration officials say that sending additional U.S. training brigades to accelerate preparation of the Afghan security forces may not accomplish as much as hoped because recruitment -- and retention -- has gone poorly as the war intensifies.

"It's all part of the endemic problems of illiteracy and security that plague many countries, but particularly this one," said a senior administration official familiar with the review process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it. "You want to increase the number of people engaged in training, but at some point bringing in more and more Americans won't produce quicker results. There's a ceiling."

McChrystal has advocated something far closer to a nation-building project. Some Republican supporters of the general's plan in Congress have compared his strategy to the 2007 "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq, a shorter-term effort that helped pull the country back from sectarian civil war.

But administration officials reject the comparison, pointing out that McChrystal's troop request would require a far longer deployment of U.S. forces and that Afghanistan is in a less dire position than Iraq was at the time of the surge.

Most important, administration officials say, the violence in Afghanistan is directed against U.S. forces rather than among Afghans. In Iraq, much of the pre-surge violence involved Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites fighting for control of the state, which gave the U.S. military a clearer role in protecting Iraqi civilians.

"There are some areas of the country that will fight us and fight the Taliban just because we are there," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters Wednesday.

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