Taliban growth weighs on Obama strategy review

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House has been presented intelligence estimating Taliban-led forces battling U.S. troops in Afghanistan have nearly quadrupled since 2006 and are increasingly independent of leaders in Pakistan, officials said on Friday.

U.S. marines fire during a Taliban ambush as they carry out an operation to clear an area in Helmand province, October 9, 2009. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

A U.S. intelligence assessment, showing the number of fighters in the insurgency has reached an estimated 25,000 from 7,000 in 2006, spotlights Taliban gains and the tough choices facing President Barack Obama in trying to reverse the trend.

Some of Obama’s advisers see a more concerted crackdown by Pakistan on militants on its side of the border as key to turning the tide in Afghanistan, but U.S. intelligence agencies see little correlation, citing the Afghan insurgency’s autonomy and increasing home-grown sophistication, officials said.

Obama launched a broad review of his war strategy after the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, gave him a grim assessment of the war and an Afghan election, marred by fraud charges, raised U.S. doubts about President Hamid Karzai’s legitimacy.

At a strategy session on Friday, Obama and his top advisers were expected to discuss for the first time McChrystal’s request to deploy 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan next year as part of a beefed up counterinsurgency.

The White House did not give details of what was discussed in the meeting, which lasted about 2 1/2 hours.

“The president had a robust conversation about the security and political challenges in Afghanistan and the options for building a strategic approach going forward,” it said in a statement. The meetings will continue on Wednesday, the statement said.

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White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said a decision on the strategy by Obama was “probably several weeks away.”

McChrystal’s proposed increase -- on top of the 65,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 allied forces now in Afghanistan -- and the broader strategy review present Obama with what may be the most difficult choices of his young presidency.

As U.S. and NATO casualties have soared, public support for the eight-year-old war has eroded. Sending 40,000 more troops could spark a backlash within Obama’s own Democratic Party.

But sending a smaller number, or no troops at all, would open Obama up to criticism from Republicans and, possibly, the military, for taking what may be a more politically palatable middle-road approach.


Though dominated by hard-core Taliban loyalists, the 25,000 figure also includes affiliates who are less committed to the fight, officials said. The White House believes some of them can be split off from the Taliban to weaken the insurgency.

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A counterterrorism official said the latest intelligence provided only a rough estimate of the insurgency’s size, citing the difficulty of assessing forces that mainly operate in small units and use hit-and-run tactics.

“You’re not talking about fixed formations that rely solely on full-time combatants. Numbers ebb and flow. Bands of fighters appear and vanish,” the official said.

Searching for ways to improve U.S. fortunes, White House national security adviser James Jones has seized on the importance of Pakistan eliminating all militant “safe havens” on its territory. “If that happens, that’s a strategic shift that will spill over into Afghanistan,” he said.

But when U.S. intelligence analysts tested that assumption during Pakistan’s recent crackdown in the Bajaur region near the Afghan border, they found no corresponding drop in militant infiltrations and attacks on U.S. forces across the border, a defense official said.

“It goes to the idea that Afghanistan is a very resilient and a very flexible insurgency. And by the very nature of insurgency, you do not need a lot of insurgents to inflict a lot of damage, because they are able to choose the time and the place to engage,” the defense official said.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said Pakistani crackdowns on militants were “helpful” but added: “The Taliban, unfortunately, have already strengthened their presence -- in numbers and in organization -- inside Afghanistan, so what happens on the other side of the border isn’t particularly relevant to many of their operations.”

Obama’s national security team has sought to make the case that al Qaeda, which is now primarily based in Pakistan, rather than the Taliban, which operates on both sides of the border, is the main threat facing the United States and, therefore, should be the main focus of the war effort.

While Taliban fighters aligned with al Qaeda would remain U.S. targets, administration officials have suggested that more moderate elements could have a future political role in Afghanistan if they broke away from hard-core leaders.

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Steve Holland, Caren Bohan and David Alexander; editing by Mohammad Zargham and Bill Trott