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Beating al-Qaida is a key in Afghan options

President Barack Obama meets with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, on Friday aboard Air Force One in Denmark. Obama is considering options for the war.

Associated Press

President Barack Obama meets with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, on Friday aboard Air Force One in Denmark. Obama is considering options for the war.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is considering a range of ideas for Afghanistan, from pulling back to staying put to sending thousands more troops to fight the insurgency.

A look at the options and implications for achieving Obama's goal of defeating al-Qaida:

Getting out

A full, immediate withdrawal of American forces does not appear to be in the cards, not the least because U.S. allies in NATO share the view that abandoning Afghanistan now would hand a victory to Islamic extremist forces such as the Taliban that are aligned in some respects with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida.

Some argue that because al-Qaida figures who were run out of Afghanistan when U.S. troops invaded after the Sept. 11 attacks are now encamped across the border in Pakistan, there is no point to a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. A related school of thought holds that the very presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan adds to the country's instability.

Obama has taken a different view. Less than two months ago he said, "If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaida would plot to kill more Americans."

Scaling back

A less drastic alternative to a full-scale retreat is a partial pullback. A reduced U.S. force would stay mainly to train and advise the Afghan army and police. U.S. forces would continue their hunt for most-wanted extremist leaders in Afghanistan. Pilotless drones such as the Predator would take out al-Qaida figures on the Pakistan side of the border. This would essentially end the counterinsurgency mission of U.S. and NATO forces.

The reasoning is that the fight is not worth the cost in blood and treasure, and al-Qaida is a more urgent priority. This option would amount to a reversal of the strategy Obama endorsed in March. Some military analysts argue it would empower the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Staying put

One of those advocating no short-term change in the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan is Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He argues for putting greater emphasis on training the Afghan forces and accelerating their growth.

In this approach, the counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban would continue on course. Additional U.S. troops would be required for the training mission, but not for combat. The flow of equipment for the police and army would be expanded. More effort would be focused on persuading Taliban fighters to lay down their arms.

Ramping up

This is the plan of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which he calls "a fundamentally new way of doing business." It would be a classic counterinsurgency campaign that could last for years. It would mean sending more U.S. troops — perhaps as many as 40,000.

The general, who is the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, says it would mean redefining the fight in ways that enable Afghans to regain control of their own country. McChrystal says there is no guarantee his approach will work. Critics worry this escalation would only lead to others.

But McChrystal argues that if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban — or is unable to counter international terrorist networks — then Afghanistan could again become a base for al-Qaida to launch an attack on the United States.

Afghan kills soldiers

An Afghan wearing a police uniform shot and killed two American soldiers and wounded two others during a joint patrol in eastern Afghanistan on Friday, Afghan officials said. The man later escaped. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said Afghan and American officials were investigating whether the attacker was a police officer or a militant dressed as one. An American military spokeswoman declined to give further details. The wounded Americans were sent to Germany.

Opponent raps U.N.

Abdullah Abdullah, the main challenger to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, sharply criticized the head of the United Nations' mission in Afghanistan on Saturday, saying he is biased toward Karzai and has worked against uncovering the full extent of fraud in last month's still-unresolved presidential election. "I have no doubt in my mind that it has seriously damaged the U.N.'s credibility in Afghanistan," Abdullah said.

Troops available

Britain is ready to send more soldiers to Afghanistan, if asked to by the commander of the U.S. and NATO forces there, the British army's new chief has been quoted as saying. Gen. David Richards, who became Britain's army commander in August, told the Sunday Telegraph that a larger NATO force would make it easier to defeat the Taliban and achieve the international community's objectives.

Recent deaths

As of Saturday, at least 774 U.S. troops have died in the Afghanistan war. Identifications as reported by the military and not previously published:

Army Sgt. Ryan C. Adams, 26, Rhinelander, Wis.; combat Friday; Logar province.

Marine Lance Cpl. Jordan L. Chrobot, 24, Frederick, Md.; combat Sept. 26; Helmand province.

Army Staff Sgt. Alex French IV, 31, Milledgeville, Ga.; combat Wednesday; Kwhost.

Army Spc. Kevin J. Graham, 27, Benton, Ky.; combat Sept. 26; Kandahar.

Army Spc. Russell S. Hercules Jr., 22, Murfreesboro, Tenn.; combat Thursday; Wardak province.

Times wires

Beating al-Qaida is a key in Afghan options 10/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 3, 2009 8:59pm]
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