WASHINGTON -- As the Obama administration reconsiders its Afghanistan policy, White House officials are minimizing warnings from the intelligence community, the military and the State Department about the risks of adopting a limited strategy focused on al Qaida, U.S. intelligence, diplomatic and military officials told McClatchy.
Recent U.S. intelligence assessments have found that the Taliban and other Pakistan-based groups that are fighting U.S.-led forces have much closer ties to al Qaida now than they did before 9/11, would allow the terrorist network to re-establish bases in Afghanistan and would help Osama bin Laden export his radical brand of Islam to Afghanistan's neighbors and beyond, the officials said.
McClatchy interviewed more than 15 senior and mid-level U.S. intelligence, military and diplomatic officials, all of whom said they concurred with the assessments. All of them requested anonymity because the assessments are classified and the officials weren't authorized to speak publicly.
The officials said the White House is searching for an alternative to the broader counterinsurgency strategy favored by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, and Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command.
White House officials, they said, have concluded that McChrystal's approach could be doomed by election fraud, corruption and other problems in Afghanistan; by continued Pakistani covert support for the insurgency; by the strains on the Army, Marine Corps and the federal budget; and by a lack of political and public support at home, which they fear could also undermine the president's domestic priorities.
One phrase that always comes up in the administration's strategy sessions is "public opinion," one participant told McClatchy.
However, the officials said, in their effort to muster domestic support for a more limited counterterrorism strategy that would concentrate on disrupting and dismantling al Qaida, White House officials are neglecting warnings from their own experts about the dangers of a more modest approach.
"McChrystal and Petraeus are ignoring the problems their (counterinsurgency) approach would face in Afghanistan and here at home," said one intelligence official with extensive experience in South Asia and counterterrorism. "We don't have a reliable partner in Afghanistan or Pakistan; doubling the size of the Afghan army is a pipedream, given the corruption and literacy problems; and neither Congress or the American people are likely to give it the money, the troops or the decade or so it would need to work, if it would work.
"Now the White House is downplaying the dangers of doing the only thing that they think Congress and the public will support -- a limited war against the guys who hit us on 9/11. The truth is, both approaches have huge problems, and neither one's likely to work."
The White House, as well as Congress and U.S. military, "have got to level with the American people, and they are not doing it," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst now with the Middle East Institute. "They are taking the easy way out by focusing on the narrow interest of protecting the homeland" from al Qaida.
Some U.S. intelligence and military officials expressed deep frustration with what they see as the administration's single-minded focus on al Qaida's threat to the U.S., saying it's not discussing publicly other, more serious consequences of a U.S. failure in Afghanistan as identified in some assessments.
A U.S. withdrawal or failure could permit al Qaida and other groups to export their violence from Afghanistan into Pakistan's heartland, the Indian-controlled side of the disputed Kashmir region and former Soviet republics in Central Asia whose autocrats have been repressing Islam for decades, the U.S. officials said.
Allowing the Taliban to prevail, the officials said, could reignite Afghanistan's civil war, which was fought largely on ethnic lines, and draw nuclear-armed India and Pakistan into backing opposing sides of the conflict.
"It is our belief that the primary focus of the Taliban is regional, that is Afghanistan and Pakistan," one senior U.S. intelligence official said. "At the same time, there is no reason to believe that the Taliban are abandoning their connections to al Qaida, which has its sights set beyond the region."
"The two groups . . . maintain the kind of close relationship that if the Taliban were able to take effective control over parts of Afghanistan would probably give al Qaida expanded room to operate," the official added.
Pakistan has long patronized Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun ethnic group, which constitutes the Taliban. India whose Kabul embassy was hit on Oct. 8 by a car bomb for the second time in 16 months supports the U.S.-backed Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. New Delhi backed the ethnic minorities who fought the Taliban before the 2001 U.S. invasion.
"The region right now is as volatile as I have ever seen it. The tension is not waning; it is on the rise," another senior U.S. intelligence official said. "The Indo-Pakistan issue looms like a dark cloud on a horizon that might look clear blue, but it is actually a tidal wave that is rushing in."
Finally, failure in Afghanistan would deal a massive blow to U.S. international standing to the benefit of Iran, Russia and China, and undermine the NATO alliance, the U.S. officials said.
The intelligence assessments and the U.S. officials' views are in stark contrast to briefings and statements made last week by administration officials who downplayed the threat al Qaida that could pose if the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan.
The administration officials said the Taliban are focused on Afghanistan and don't share al Qaida's goals of striking the U.S. and forcing its brand of extreme Islam on the Muslim world.
"There simply is a difference in intent among these groups," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday. "Our primary focus is to protect our homeland and . . . help to protect our allies."
"Anyone who . . . believes what the Taliban says today is fooling themselves," countered one senior U.S. intelligence official, referring to an Internet statement in which the Islamic militia claimed that its sole goal is driving foreign forces from Afghanistan.
The official said he's worried that the Afghanistan strategy debate isn't focused on "the rise of Islamist extremism in a way that would shadow what we saw building up prior to 9/11."
The more limited counterterrorism approach promoted by Vice President Joe Biden would require fewer than the 20,000 to 45,000 additional soldiers sought by McChrystal. In August, McChrystal submitted a 60-day assessment that called the situation in Afghanistan "dire" and said that without more troops, the mission could fail.
"Here we go again," a veteran U.S. intelligence official said. "The Bush administration ignored anything that didn't support its arguments for invading Iraq and exaggerated the threat from Saddam Hussein. This administration is minimizing the threat from radical Islam in South and Central Asia, which is much worse today than it was eight years ago, in order to defend a minimalist policy that it's settling on for domestic political reasons."
This official said that the White House has been "spoon-feeding distorted information" to a few news organizations in an effort to build public and congressional support for a policy that another U.S. official said "rests on the nonsensical notion that you can separate some of the Taliban from other Taliban, al Qaida and other groups, when in reality those groups are more closely allied today than they've ever been."
"I read in the paper that there are only 100 al Qaida fighters in Afghanistan," said another U.S. intelligence official, referring to an Oct. 4 CNN interview with National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a retired Marine general. "That might be true at a particular point in time, but an hour later there might be 200 or 250. The distinction between Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan is meaningless because as a practical matter, the border between them doesn't exist, and all the groups share sources of financing, training and weapons."
The intelligence assessments based their conclusions that the Taliban and related groups would back al Qaida's global agenda on the fact that the Afghan insurgents not only continue to admire bin Laden and his Arab, Central Asian and other followers, but also are indebted to them for financial, military and technical assistance.
Moreover, the Taliban and allied groups are also indebted to the jihadists in the Middle East who've helped fund their insurgency, and they remain wedded to Pashtunwali, the centuries-old Pashtun tribal code that mandates protection of fellow Muslims.
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