Obama shifts focus to threat from Al Qaeda in Pakistan
Afghan Taliban not considered as great a risk
WASHINGTON - President Obama’s national security team is moving to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan does not pose a direct threat to the United States, officials said yesterday.
As Obama met with advisers for three hours to discuss Pakistan, the White House said he has not decided whether to approve a proposed troop buildup in Afghanistan. But the shift in thinking, outlined by senior administration officials yesterday, suggests that the president has been presented with an approach that would not require all of the additional troops that his commanding general in the region has requested.
It remains unclear whether everyone in the president’s war Cabinet fully accepts this view. While Vice President Joe Biden has argued for months against increasing troops in Afghanistan because Pakistan was the greater priority, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have both publicly warned that the Taliban remain linked to Al Qaeda and would give its fighters safe haven again if it regained control of all or large parts of Afghanistan, making it a mistake to think of them as separate problems.
Moreover, Obama’s commander there, General Stanley A. McChrystal, has argued that success demands a substantial expansion of the American presence - up to 40,000 additional troops - and any decision that provides less will expose the president to criticism, especially from Republicans, that his policy is a prescription for failure.
The White House appears to be trying to prepare the ground to counter that by focusing attention on recent successes against Al Qaeda cells in Pakistan. The approach described by administration officials yesterday amounts to an alternative to the analysis presented by McChrystal. If, as the White House has increasingly asserted in recent weeks, it has improved the ability of the United States to reduce the threat from Al Qaeda, then the war in Afghanistan is less important to American security.
In reviewing McChrystal’s request, the White House is rethinking what was, just six months ago, a strategy that viewed Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single integrated problem, according to several administration officials and outsiders who have spoken with them. Now the discussions in the White House Situation Room are focusing on related but separate strategies for fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
“Clearly, Al Qaeda is a threat not only to the US homeland and American interests abroad, but it has a murderous agenda,’’ one senior administration official said in an interview initiated by the White House yesterday on condition of anonymity because the strategy review has not been finished. “We want to destroy its leadership, its infrastructure and its capability.’’
The official contrasted that with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which the administration has begun to define as an indigenous group that aspires to reclaim territory and rule the country, but does not express ambitions of attacking the United States. “When the two are aligned, it’s mainly on the tactical front,’’ the official said, noting that Al Qaeda has fewer than 100 fighters in Afghanistan.
Another official, who also was authorized to speak but not to be identified, said the different views of Al Qaeda and Taliban are driving the president’s review. “To the extent that Al Qaeda has been degraded, and it has, and to the extent you believe you need to focus on destroying it going forward, what is required going forward?’’ the official asked. “And to prevent it from having a safe haven?’’
The officials argued that while Al Qaeda is a foreign body, the Taliban cannot be wholly removed from Afghanistan because it is too ingrained in the country. Moreover, the forces often described as Taliban are actually an amalgamation of militants that includes local warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network or others fighting for local grievances rather than jihadist ideology.
Obama has defined his mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan as attempting “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and other extremist networks around the world.’’
But he made clear during a visit to the National Counterterrorism Center on Tuesday that the goal behind it is to protect the United States. “That’s the principal threat to the American people,’’ he said.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, repeated yesterday that the president’s “primary focus is on groups and their allies that can strike our homeland, strike our allies, or groups who would provide safe haven for those that wish to do that.’’
The discussion about whether the Taliban poses a threat to the United States has been at the heart of the administration’s debate about what to do in Afghanistan.