WASHINGTON — As it reviews its Afghanistan policy for the second time this year, the Obama administration has concluded that the Taliban cannot be eliminated as a political or military movement, regardless of how many combat forces are sent into battle.
The Taliban and the question of how the administration should regard the Islamist movement have assumed a central place in the policy deliberations under way at the White House, the Washington Post reports, citing administration officials participating in the meetings attended by President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Based on a stark assessment by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and six hours of debate among the senior national security staff so far, the administration has established guidelines on its strategy to confront the group.
The goal, according to the Post's sources, is to weaken the Taliban to the degree that it cannot challenge the Afghan government or re-establish the haven it provided for al-Qaida before the 2001 U.S. invasion. Those objectives appear largely consistent with McChrystal's strategy, which he says "cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces" but should center on persuading the population to support the government.
Hours before Obama and his top aides reviewed U.S. strategy in the 8-year-old war, a car bomb exploded outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul, killing at least 17 people and destroying offices and cars along a heavily fortified street in the Afghan capital that is also home to the country's Interior Ministry.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, and Afghan officials suspect it is the same Pakistan-based group led by Jalaluddin Haqqani that is blamed for a previous attack on the Indian Embassy. The July 2008 suicide bombing killed more than 60 people, including the Indian defense attache.
Haqqani is a former anti-Soviet guerrilla commander who served as a minister in the Taliban regime, and his forces are fighting U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan. He is thought to have ties to elements within Pakistan's top intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence.
U.S. intelligence officials accused the Haqqani network, based in Pakistan's tribal region, of launching the 2008 attack on the Indian mission in collusion with ISI officers, a charge Islamabad denied.
The Indian government refrained from affixing blame for Thursday's bombing, but many Indian defense and political analysts were quick to point the finger at Pakistan.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Abdul Basit, condemned Thursday's bombing in Kabul.
"Whenever terrorist activity occurs, it should strengthen our resolve to eradicate and eliminate this menace," Basit told reporters in Islamabad. He described speculation about a Pakistani role as "preposterous."
The Associated Press reported that a senior administration official said Obama's developing strategy on the Taliban will not tolerate their return to power, but the U.S. would fight only to keep the Taliban from retaking control of Afghanistan's central government — something it is now far from being capable of — and from giving renewed sanctuary in Afghanistan to al-Qaida.
The official is involved in the discussions and was authorized to speak about them but not to be identified by name because the review is still under way.
Some inside the White House have cited Hezbollah, the armed Lebanese political movement, as an example of what the Taliban could become. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government but has political support within Lebanon and participates, sometimes through intimidation, in the political process.
Some White House advisers have noted that, while Hezbollah is a source of regional instability, it is not a threat to the United States. The administration official said the Hezbollah example has not been mentioned specifically to Obama and has been raised only informally outside Situation Room meetings so far.
Obama identified al-Qaida as the chief target of his Afghan policy in March, when he announced he would dispatch an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to the region, and his advisers have emphasized during the policy review that the administration views al-Qaida and the Taliban as philosophically distinct organizations.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that "there is clearly a difference between an entity that, through a global, transnational jihadist network, would seek to strike the U.S. homeland" and the Taliban.
"I think the Taliban are obviously exceedingly bad people that have done awful things," Gibbs said. "Their capability is somewhat different, though, on that continuum of transnational threats."
Information from the Associated Press, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.