As President Barack Obama inches closer to a decision on new troops for Afghanistan, his latest war council debate Wednesday centered on how to strengthen U.S. civilian efforts there and significantly ramp up training of the Afghan police and army.
Obama met for three hours with his national security team, the fifth of six such meetings scheduled for the president to consider where to take the eight-year-old war.
The White House added a meeting for next week, by which time there may be a decision on whether to hold a runoff presidential election in Afghanistan between President Hamid Karzai and his chief challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.
The allegations of widespread fraud in the Aug. 20 voting are among the most troublesome factors in Obama's strategy review. An Afghanistan government seen as illegitimate by its people could create openings for the Taliban and a renewed safe haven for al-Qaida. Many fear that any U.S. effort — no matter how big or well-targeted — could fail as a result.
The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission could rule as soon as Saturday on whether to discard enough Karzai votes to force a runoff with Abdullah. The new vote, logistically difficult to pull off, would have to be held within two weeks.
Nonmilitary efforts key to success
Though some administration officials and Obama advisers differ on whether a narrower, counterterrorism-style approach or a broader counterinsurgency mission is the better approach, all seem to agree that increasing nonmilitary efforts to improve Afghanistan's agricultural industry and economy, rule of law and governing institutions are key to any success.
Similarly, the administration hopes to train significantly more local police and army in the hope they could eventually take the burden off of U.S. shoulders of protecting the country from a Taliban resurgence and al-Qaida infiltration.
"Having a strong and credible partner is extremely important to this process," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
He denied a report circulating in Britain that the president had made a decision on a troop increase that falls in about the middle-range of the options presented by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal's still-secret troop request outlines three options — from as many as 80,000 more troops to as few as 10,000 — but favors a compromise of 40,000 more forces, officials have told The Associated Press. There now are 67,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and 1,000 more are headed there by the end of December.
Obama has said he would make up his mind in the coming weeks, and no announcement is expected before November. A senior administration official said the president is still working through and considering various options and has not settled on one. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the debate is ongoing.
"Like the other meetings, there wasn't one magic sentence or one magic phrase," Gibbs said of Wednesday's discussion in the White House Situation Room, in which nearly two dozen officials participated.
‘Sort out who is the real enemy’
Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton, who joined the discussion by phone because she was traveling overseas, said in a television interview that a big problem facing Obama and his team was "to sort out who is the real enemy."
"Our goal is to disrupt, dismantle, defeat al-Qaida and its extremist allies. But not every Taliban is al-Qaida," she told ABC News' "Nightline." "There are people who are Taliban, who are fighting because they get paid to fight. They have no other way of making a living."
Other tribal groups in Afghanistan find it beneficial to ally with the Taliban because they are conservative, she said. But those groups also are "not a direct threat to us," Clinton said.
However, a warning about overly de-emphasizing the focus on the Taliban came Wednesday from a key U.S. ally. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced his country would send 500 more troops to Afghanistan, for a total of about 9,500, but seemed to dismiss the notion of depending too much on increasing the focus on al-Qaida through precise aerial and special forces strikes.
"If we limit ourselves simply to targeting al-Qaida, without building the capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan to deal with terrorism and violent extremism, the security gains will not endure," Brown said.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who chaired Obama's previous policy review in March, said more troops are needed, though he didn't know the right level.
"We need some kind of shock therapy," he said. "If we stay where we are we are committing ourselves to a long-term stalemate."