11.9.01

White House Re-Thinking Afghanistan War Strategy, Re-interpreting History

In al Qaeda, Official History, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Taliban on October 8, 2009 at 11:15 am

It is good to remember history, and to remember that over time, history becomes re-interpreted.  In light of this, a rather amazing report that the White House is thinking of letting the Taliban gain control over Afghanistan (again):

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 do not pose a direct threat to the United States, officials said Wednesday. 

As Mr. Obama met with advisers for three hours to discuss Pakistan, the White House said he had not decided whether to approve a proposed troop buildup in Afghanistan. But the shift in thinking, outlined by senior administration officials on Wednesday, 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 Mr. Obama’s war cabinet fully accepts this view. While Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. 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 warned that the Taliban remain linked to Al Qaeda and would give their fighters havens again if the Taliban regained control of all or large parts of Afghanistan, making it a mistake to think of them as separate problems.

At this point it is important to remember the main reason why the U.S. went into Afghanistan in 2001.  They believed that the Taliban — fairly much the same Taliban as now — gave a safe haven for al Qaeda to plan and execute 9/11.  The Taliban were considered a direct threat to the U.S.  The U.S. destroyed the Taliban’s government and installed Karzai (or, at least, provided favorable conditions for Karzai to become Head of State).  In 2001, the dominant view was that the Taliban and al Qaeda are linked and mutually reinforcing.  Now, in 2009, some of Obama’s advisors are saying that the link is not as strong, and that the Taliban is not a direct threat to the U.S.  They argue that the focus should be on Pakistan which was, in part, a safe haven for al Qaeda, operationally speaking, and is becoming more so now.    Some even refer to the Taliban as an “indigenous” group, an unsubstantiated claim considering that it was Pakistan who created, trained, and funded the Taliban in Afghanistan.  They argue that at any rate, the Taliban are ingrained into Afghanistan, even though they’ve only been around since 1990.  They claim that the Taliban would not want to bring al Qaeda back with them because it was al Qaeda what got them kicked out of the country before.  They claim that surviving Afghan warlords like Hekmatyar are not jihadists, are not anti-American, but rather just want to control Afghanistan (and, likely their opium production).  This is a radical reinterpretation of history that has radical consequences for the Middle East.

Moreover, Mr. Obama’s commander there, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has argued that success demands a substantial expansion of the American presence, up to 40,000 more troops. 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 Qaeda cells in Pakistan. The approach described by administration officials on Wednesday amounted to an alternative to the analysis presented by General McChrystal. If, as the White House has 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 central to American security.

In reviewing General 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. Now the discussions in the White House Situation Room, according to several administration officials and outsiders who have spoken with them, are focusing on related but separate strategies for fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

“Clearly, Al Qaeda is a threat not only to the U.S. homeland and American interests abroad, but it has a murderous agenda,” one senior administration official said in an interview initiated by the White House on Wednesday on the 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 Afghan Taliban, 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 the Taliban were 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 was a foreign body, the Taliban could not be wholly removed from Afghanistan because they were 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 driven by local grievances rather than jihadist ideology.

Mr. Obama has defined his mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan as trying “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and other extremist networks around the world.” But he made it clear during a visit to the National Counterterrorism Center on Tuesday that the larger goal behind the mission was to protect the United States. “That’s the principal threat to the American people,” he said.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday that Mr. Obama’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 pose a threat to the United States has been at the heart of the administration’s debate about what to do in Afghanistan. Some in the Biden camp say that the Taliban can be contained with current troop levels and eventually by Afghan forces trained by the United States.

Moreover, they suggest that the Taliban have no interest in letting Al Qaeda back into Afghanistan because that was what cost them power when they were toppled by American-backed Afghan rebels in 2001.

“The policy people and the intelligence people inside are having a big argument over this,” said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised Mr. Biden. “Is the Taliban a loose collection of people we can split up? Can we split the Taliban from Al Qaeda? If the Taliban comes back to power in parts of Afghanistan, are they going to bring Al Qaeda back with them?”

Some analysts say that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have actually grown closer since the first American bombs fell on the Shomali Plain north of Kabul eight years ago Tuesday.

“The kind of separation that existed between the Taliban and Al Qaeda in 2001 really doesn’t exist anymore,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has advised General McChrystal. “You have much more ideological elements in the Taliban. In the east, they’re really mixed in with Al Qaeda.”

Frances Fragos Townsend, who was President George W. Bush’s homeland security adviser, said the two groups remained linked.

“It’s a dangerous argument to assume that the Taliban won’t revert to where they were pre-9/11 and provide Al Qaeda sanctuary,” she said. Referring to General McChrystal, she added, “If you don’t give him the troops he asked for and continue with the Predator strikes, you can kill them one at a time, but you’re not going to drain the swamp.”

Officials said Wednesday that General McChrystal’s official request for additional forces was forwarded to Mr. Obama last week. Mr. Gates’s spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said Mr. Gates had given Mr. Obama “an informal copy” at the president’s request.

The meeting on Wednesday was Mr. Obama’s third with his full national security team. Another is scheduled for Friday to talk about Afghanistan and then a fifth is planned, possibly for next week. Mr. Gibbs said the president was still several weeks away from a decision.

David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker contributed reporting.

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