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, officials told McClatchy Newspapers.
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 the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, which would allow the 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 Newspapers interviewed more than 15 senior and midlevel 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.
An intelligence official with extensive experience in South Asia and counterterrorism said McChrystal and Petraeus were ignoring the problems their counterinsurgency approach would face, explaining that the United States has no reliable partner in Afghanistan or Pakistan and that doubling the size of the Afghan army is unrealistic.
He said the White House was downplaying the dangers of the option they think Congress and the public will support — a limited war against al-Qaida.
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 United States, 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.
Administration officials have said the Taliban is focused on Afghanistan and do not share al-Qaida's goals of striking the United States and forcing its brand of extreme Islam on the Muslim world.
"Anyone who … believes what the Taliban says today is fooling themselves," one senior U.S. intelligence official said.