WASHINGTON — President Obama and his top advisors are moving toward a strategy on Afghanistan that defines Al Qaeda as a greater threat to U.S. security than the Taliban, a view that could help them avoid the major troop increase sought by military commanders.
The evolving strategy represents a subtle shift for the administration, which has considered Osama bin Laden's network its top enemy while viewing the Taliban as a close ally of Al Qaeda that supports its ambitions. White House officials now are taking pains to make distinctions between the two groups, branding Al Qaeda a global terrorist group and the Taliban a local movement.
Such a strategy could let U.S.-led forces concentrate on their successful strategy of using unmanned aircraft and missile strikes against Al Qaeda operatives and outposts in the remote region along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
A senior administration official indicated that in the fight against the Taliban, at a minimum the extremists would not be allowed to regain the strength to control Afghanistan or offer help to Al Qaeda, whose leadership is thought to be based in Pakistan.
"Are they violent adversaries? Yes," the official wrote of the Taliban in an e-mail exchange. "And we would not tolerate their return to power as they were before 9/11."
The new emphasis rekindled an 8-year-old debate about how closely Al Qaeda and the Taliban are aligned. Many experts agree they are distinct, but others see them as virtually interchangeable sets of militants.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration considered Al Qaeda a "global, transnational, jihadist movement" that has attacked the U.S. before and would again.
The Taliban, meanwhile, is an "indigenous" movement centered in Afghanistan and Pakistan that includes "homegrown political actors with localized ambitions and concerns," the senior administration official said.
In comments this summer, Obama indicated that the administration saw a link between the two groups.
In an address Aug. 17 to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Obama said:
"We must never forget. This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans."
Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran who led the Obama administration's overhaul of its Afghanistan and Pakistan policies this year, said it was "a fundamental misreading of the nature of these organizations to think that they are anything other than partners."
"Al Qaeda is embedded in the Taliban insurgency, and it's highly unlikely that you're going to be able to separate them," he said.
Obama meets today with national security advisors as part of his review of Afghanistan strategy, and officials said he is at least a week away from any decisions on a new U.S. policy or troop levels. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has recommended sending up to 40,000 American troops, in addition to the 68,000 already there.
Top administration officials are skeptical about sending so many troops without a close examination of U.S. aims. That view has been influenced by a series of dismal developments, including the extremist violence in Afghanistan, a fraud-tainted presidential election there, and plummeting support for the war among the U.S. public and lawmakers.
Influential Democrats on Capitol Hill have expressed unease about a strategy that requires a major increase in the number of troops. But it is far from clear that they would undercut Obama by refusing an administration request for funds to pay for the conflict.
"People are unsure what do to," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a critic of the war who gathered more than 50 signatures on a letter to Obama opposing a troop increase. "I think people want to give the president more space and wait for his decision. But I thought it was important to try to send something to him before a final decision is made to let him know there is a lot of concern."
Daniel Markey, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the White House emphasis on Al Qaeda may be a sign that the administration is unlikely to send the full complement of troops sought by McChrystal. The views of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are "presumably an argument for why a heavy emphasis on Afghanistan and the Taliban is misplaced," said Markey, a former State Department official.
The Taliban inserted itself into the debate this week by posting a statement in English on one of its websites asserting that the group poses no threat to the West.