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Taliban leader plans to reclaim Afghanistan, U.S. says

Mullah Mohammed Omar has reassembled his power base, U.S. officials say as they outline strategy in Afghanistan. Thousands of additional U.S. troops will be sent to train Afghan forces.

March 27, 2009|Julian E. Barnes and Greg Miller

WASHINGTON — Afghanistan's former Taliban leader is pursuing a determined effort to reclaim power, U.S. officials said Thursday, a bid they plan to thwart by isolating the most militant insurgents, intensifying training of police and military, and reaching out to people at all levels of Afghan society.

The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was driven from power by the U.S. invasion in 2001 that also dislodged Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. But he has reassembled much of his base in Pakistan, where he leads a council of Islamic hard-liners accused of directing insurgent attacks across the border in Afghanistan.

Senior Obama administration officials said in meetings with lawmakers and reporters that a new strategy for Afghanistan, which will be announced by President Obama today after an exhaustive review, would include an additional complement of 4,000 troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division to train Afghan police and soldiers. That deployment will be in addition to the extra 17,000 combat troops Obama has ordered to Afghanistan this spring and summer.

Washington will also broaden diplomatic contacts with Afghan officials at all levels and refocus U.S. efforts on combating extremism in Pakistan, officials said.

The added troops are expected to boost the U.S. force in Afghanistan to nearly 60,000 and, along with NATO units, will be part of an allied presence reaching about 90,000 troops later this year.

Further, the State Department will send hundreds of civilian officials to the region in hopes of heightening diplomatic contacts among U.S., Afghan and Pakistani officials. Special U.S. representative Richard Holbrooke will host a meeting with leaders from Afghanistan every six to eight weeks, the senior administration officials said at a briefing.

In Pakistan, the senior officials said, the administration will back the civilian government and support a congressional proposal to triple non-military aid to $1.5 billion a year for the next five years. Obama also will consider stepped-up military assistance, particularly for equipment such as helicopters to help in counter-insurgency missions.

Along the Afghanistan- Pakistan border, the administration is backing creation of "reconstruction zones" to funnel aid to tribal areas, where Al Qaeda militants are presumed to be taking refuge.

"We're going to move from a policy of throwing money at Pakistan and then ignoring it to a policy of consistency and constancy," said one of the senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under rules of the briefing.

The senior administration officials said the strategy would be judged against a series of benchmarks. Although the officials did not specify what the benchmarks would measure, they pointed to the need for improvements in the Afghan military, better cooperation from Pakistan, and reduced violence in both countries

"The truth is the administration inherited a situation adrift, without a clear strategy," said another senior administration official, in a criticism of the Bush administration. "One of the first tasks the president undertook was to develop a comprehensive strategy with a clear goal."

The officials said the new strategy creates a regional plan to "disrupt, dismantle and eventually destroy" extremist sanctuaries in Pakistan and prevent them from developing in Afghanistan.

Administration officials said the mission would be "properly resourced" but were not able to estimate how much it would cost.

Earlier Thursday, the top U.S. intelligence official said spy agencies lack a detailed understanding of the regional dynamics across much of Afghanistan.

"We know a heck of a lot more about Iraq on a very granular basis than we do in Afghanistan," said Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, describing an intelligence imbalance that could hamper the Obama administration's efforts as it shifts troops from one war theater to the other.

Overall, the new strategy will rely on a plan to split the Taliban insurgency -- separating factions that can be induced to support the U.S.-backed government from those that are seen as irreconcilable.

In a briefing with reporters, Blair said that roughly two-thirds of Taliban militants are primarily concerned with regional issues and can be defeated or co-opted if the struggling government of President Hamid Karzai can bolster its ability to provide security and services beyond Kabul, the capital.

But Blair indicated that U.S. intelligence analysts believe that the remaining one-third of the insurgency is intractable.

That group, loyal to Omar, is pursuing "an overall strategy pointed towards resuming a position of power within Afghanistan," Blair said. "Omar is certainly a tough case, and thinks he ought to be running Afghanistan himself, and doesn't show many signs of settling for anything less."

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