The excellent muckrakers of the McClatchy Washington bureau report:
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, U.S. intelligence, diplomatic and military officials told McClatchy.
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 9/11, would allow the terrorist 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 interviewed more than 15 senior and mid-level 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.
In the past few weeks, it has seemed that the White House has been looking to adopt an in-the-middle course in Afghanistan, not dumping too many more troops in, not drawing down the troops already there. And White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has repeatedly noted that the entire Taliban is not an extension of al Qaeda—an assertion that has tremendous strategic ramifications. If there is a difference between the two, then perhaps the United States and NATO can cut deals with some Taliban elements and isolate those Taliban slices that are in bed with al Qaeda. But if the Taliban and al Qaeda are joined at the hip—as Senator John McCain and others have claimed—then there's a better argument for a bigger military mission aimed at destroying the Taliban.
The McClatchy piece indicates that intelligence officials are pushing the one-and-the-same analysis—meaning they are increasing the pressure (either purposefully or not) for boosting the US/NATO military presence in Afghanistan. If Obama does not head in that direction, he can expect a storm of protest from hawks who will be waving news stories like this—and perhaps leaked reports—and claiming that he's ignoring the intelligence. Afghanistan—as both a political and policy concern—keeps getting messier for the latest Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.