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Obama to reach out to some Taliban

He says US is not winning Afghan war

'I don't think that people should suddenly mistrust all of our financial institutions,' - President Obama, shown yesterday leaving the Oval Office. "I don't think that people should suddenly mistrust all of our financial institutions,"
- President Obama, shown yesterday leaving the Oval Office. (Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images)
By Helene Cooper and Sheryl Gay Stolberg
New York Times / March 8, 2009
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WASHINGTON - President Obama declared in an interview that the United States was not winning the war in Afghanistan and opened the door to a reconciliation process in which the US military would reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq.

Obama pointed to the success in peeling Iraqi insurgents away from more hard-core elements of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a strategy that many credit as much as the increase of American forces with turning the war around in the last two years.

"There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region," he said, while cautioning that solutions in Afghanistan will be complicated.

In a 35-minute conversation with The New York Times aboard Air Force One Friday, Obama reviewed the challenges to his young administration.

The president said he could not assure Americans that the economy would begin growing again this year. But he pledged that he would "get all the pillars in place for recovery this year" and urged Americans not to "stuff money in their mattresses."

"I don't think that people should be fearful about our future," he said. "I don't think that people should suddenly mistrust all of our financial institutions."

As he pressed forward with ambitious plans at home to rewrite the tax code, expand healthcare coverage, and curb climate change, Obama dismissed criticism from conservatives that he was driving the country toward socialism.

After the interview, which took place as the president was flying home from Ohio, he called reporters from the Oval Office to assert that his actions have been "entirely consistent with free-market principles" and to point out that large-scale government intervention in the markets and expansion of social welfare programs began under President George W. Bush.

Obama exhibited confidence six weeks into his presidency, despite the economic turmoil around the globe and the deteriorating situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He struck a reassuring tone, saying Americans should not be frightened of the future, and he said he had no trouble sleeping at night.

"Look, I wish I had the luxury of just dealing with a modest recession or just dealing with healthcare or just dealing with energy or just dealing with Iraq or just dealing with Afghanistan," Obama said. "I don't have that luxury, and I don't think the American people do, either."

The president spoke at length about the struggle with terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere, staking out positions that at times seemed more comparable to those of his predecessor than many of Obama's more liberal supporters would like. He did not rule out the option of snatching terrorism suspects out of hostile countries.

Asked if the United States was winning in Afghanistan, a war he effectively adopted as his own last month by ordering an additional 17,000 troops sent there, Obama replied, "No."

Obama said on the campaign trail last year that the possibility of breaking away some elements of the Taliban "should be explored," an idea also considered by some military leaders. But now he has started a review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan intended to find a new strategy, and he signaled that reconciliation could emerge as an important initiative, mirroring the strategy used by General David H. Petraeus in Iraq.

"If you talk to General Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq," Obama said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that outreach may not yield the same success. "The situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex," he said. "You have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross purposes, and so figuring all that out is going to be much more of a challenge."

Obama signaled that those on the left seeking a wholesale reversal of Bush's detainee policy might be disappointed. Obama said that by the time he got into office, the Bush administration had taken "steps to correct certain policies and procedures after those first couple of years" after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Turning to domestic affairs, Obama indicated that the end was not in sight when it came to the economic crisis and suggested that he expected it could take another $750 billion to address the problem of weak and failing financial institutions beyond the $700 billion already approved. Maintaining support for the additional costs of bailouts is quite likely to be among Obama's biggest challenges, given the anger that many Americans, including lawmakers, feel toward Wall Street executives who they believe are being unduly rewarded with bailout money.

The budget plan he released last month included a placeholder estimate of $250 billion for additional bank bailouts, an amount that represents the projected long-term cost to taxpayers of a $750 billion infusion into the financial sector, and in the interview Obama indicated that those figures were what he was likely to seek from Congress.

"We have no reason to revise that estimate," he said.

Addressing the fear and uncertainty among Americans as job losses mount and stock markets sink, Obama urged Americans to "be prudent" in their personal financial decisions, but not to hunker down so much that it would further slow the recovery.

"What I don't think people should do is suddenly stuff money in their mattresses and pull back completely from spending," he said.

Still, he avoided guessing when the situation might begin to turn around. "Our belief and expectation is that we will get all the pillars in place for recovery this year," he said. "How long it will take before recovery actually translates into stronger job markets and so forth is going to depend on a whole range of factors."

As he settles into his new job, Obama said he has spent much of his time reading briefing books, but still tries to stay in touch by perusing newspapers and thumbing through weekly newsmagazines.

But he said he does not watch much television, except basketball games.

Obama rode to the White House partly on his savvy use of new technology, and he has a staff-written blog on his presidential website. Even so, he said he did not find blogs a reliable source of objective information, citing the economy as one example.

"Part of the reason we don't spend a lot of time looking at blogs," he said, "is because if you haven't looked at it very carefully, then you may be under the impression that somehow there's a clean answer one way or another - well, you just nationalize all the banks, or you just leave them alone and they'll be fine."

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