Afghanistan Pullback: U.S. May Focus On Drone Attacks On Terrorists

A sniffer dog of Afghanistan police sniffs for explosives in a vehicle in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Sept. 21, 2009. Gen. Stanley McChrystal , the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan has reported to President Barack Obama that without more troops the U.S. risks failure in a war it's been waging since Sept. 2001.(AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

WASHINGTON
— President Barack Obama's strategy against al-Qaida may shift away from more troops in Afghanistan and toward more drone strikes against terrorist targets.

As the war worsens in Afghanistan, Obama could steer away from the comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy he laid out this spring and toward a narrower focus on counterterror operations.

Two senior administration officials said Monday that the renewed fight against al-Qaida could lead to more missile attacks on Pakistan terrorist havens by unmanned U.S. spy planes. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made.

The armed drones could contain al-Qaida in a smaller, if more remote, area and keep its leaders from retreating back into Afghanistan, the officials said.

The prospect of a White House alternative to a deepening involvement in Afghanistan comes as administration officials debate whether to send more troops – as urged in a blunt assessment of the deteriorating conflict by the top U.S. commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

The president thus far has not endorsed the McChrystal approach, saying in television interviews over the weekend that he needs to be convinced that sending more troops would make Americans safer from al-Qaida.

Tellingly, Obama reiterated in those interviews that his core goal is to destroy al-Qaida, which is not present in significant numbers in Afghanistan. He did not focus on saving Afghanistan.

"I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face," Obama told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

Top aides to Obama said he still has questions and wants more time to decide.

Forces on the ground in Afghanistan have been forging ahead for weeks with the counterinsurgency strategy laid out by the president in March, including working to pull back troops from remote and sparsely populated Taliban havens and to move them to populated areas where they can fulfill the counterinsurgency tact of protecting the people. They have not pulled back from many places yet.

And McChrystal had completed a separate report in which he could request in the range of some 40,000 additional troops to carry out that strategy, Pentagon officials said. But it has been decided that he will not submit it until a strategy is finalized, defense officials said.

Officials said the administration aims to push ahead with the ground mission in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, still leaving the door open for sending more U.S. troops. But Obama's top advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden, have indicated they are reluctant to send many more troops – if any at all – in the immediate future.

The proposed shift would bolster U.S. action on Obama's long-stated goal of dismantling terrorist havens, but it could also complicate American relations with Pakistan, long wary of the growing use of aerial drones to target militants along the porous border with Afghanistan.

Most U.S. military officials have preferred a classic counterinsurgency mission to keep al-Qaida out of Afghanistan by defeating the Taliban and securing the local population.

However, one senior White House official said it's not clear that the Taliban would welcome al-Qaida back into Afghanistan. The official noted that it was only after the 9/11 attacks that the United States invaded Afghanistan and deposed the Taliban in pursuit of al-Qaida.

Pakistan will not allow the United States to deploy a large-scale military troop buildup on its soil. However, its military and intelligence services are believed to have assisted the U.S. with airstrikes, even while the government has publicly condemned them.

Wider use of missile strikes and less reliance on ground troops would mark Obama's second shift in strategy and tactics since taking office last January.

But stepping up attacks on the remnants of al-Qaida also would dovetail with Obama's presidential campaign promise of directly going after the terrorist network that spawned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

Over the past few weeks, White House and Pentagon officials have debated the best way to defeat al-Qaida – and whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to battle the extremist Taliban elements that hosted Osama bin Laden and his operatives in the 1990s and have continued to aid the terrorist group.

McChrystal has argued that without more troops the United States could lose the war against the Taliban and allied insurgents.

White House officials have made clear that Pakistan, where the U.S. cannot send troops, should be the top concern since that is where top al-Qaida leaders, including bin Laden himself, are believed to be hiding. Very few al-Qaida extremists are believed to still be in Afghanistan, according to military and White House officials.
 
 
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