Mar 7, 2009 12 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
Obama Ponders Outreach to Elements of the Taliban
By HELENE COOPER and SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
WASHINGTON â€” President Obama declared in an interview that the United States was not winning the war in Afghanistan and opened the door to a reconciliation process in which the American military would reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq.
Mr. Obama pointed to the success in peeling Iraqi insurgents away from more hard-core elements of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a strategy that many credit as much as the increase of American forces with turning the war around in the last two years. â€œThere may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region,â€ he said, while cautioning that solutions in Afghanistan will be complicated.
The president spoke at length about the struggle with terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere, staking out positions that at times seemed more comparable to those of his predecessor than many of Mr. Obamaâ€™s more liberal supporters would like. He did not rule out the option of snatching terrorism suspects out of hostile countries.
Asked if the United States was winning in Afghanistan, a war he effectively adopted as his own last month by ordering an additional 17,000 troops sent there, Mr. Obama replied flatly, â€œNo.â€
Mr. Obama said on the campaign trail last year that the possibility of breaking away some elements of the Taliban â€œshould be explored,â€ an idea also considered by some military leaders. But now he has started a review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan intended to find a new strategy, and he signaled that reconciliation could emerge as an important initiative, mirroring the strategy used by Gen. David H. Petraeus in Iraq.
â€œIf you talk to General Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq,â€ Mr. Obama said.
At the same time, he acknowledged that outreach may not yield the same success. â€œThe situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex,â€ he said. â€œYou have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross purposes, and so figuring all that out is going to be much more of a challenge.â€
For American military planners, reaching out to some members of the Taliban is fraught with complexities. For one thing, officials would have to figure out which Taliban members might be within the reach of a reconciliation campaign, no easy task in a lawless country with feuding groups of insurgents.
And administration officials have criticized the Pakistani government for its own reconciliation deal with local Taliban leaders in the Swat Valley, where Islamic law has been imposed and radical figures hold sway. Pakistani officials have sought to reassure administration officials that their deal was not a surrender to the Taliban, but rather an attempt to drive a wedge between hard-core Taliban leaders and local Islamists.
During the interview, Mr. Obama also left open the option for American operatives to capture terrorism suspects abroad even without the cooperation of a country where they were found. â€œThere could be situations â€” and I emphasize â€˜could beâ€™ because we havenâ€™t made a determination yet â€” where, letâ€™s say that we have a well-known Al Qaeda operative that doesnâ€™t surface very often, appears in a third country with whom we donâ€™t have an extradition relationship or would not be willing to prosecute, but we think is a very dangerous person,â€ he said.
â€œI think we still have to think about how do we deal with that kind of scenario,â€ he added. The president went on to say that â€œwe donâ€™t tortureâ€ and that â€œwe ultimately provide anybody that weâ€™re detaining an opportunity through habeas corpus to answer to charges.â€
Aides later said Mr. Obama did not mean to suggest that everybody held by American forces would be granted habeas corpus or the right to challenge their detention. In a court filing last month, the Obama administration agreed with the Bush administration position that 600 prisoners in a cavernous prison on the American air base at Bagram in Afghanistan have no right to seek their release in court.
Instead, aides said Mr. Obamaâ€™s comment referred only to a Supreme Court decision last year finding that prisoners held at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba, have the right to go to federal court to challenge their continued detention.
Mr. Obama signaled that those on the left seeking a wholesale reversal of Mr. Bushâ€™s detainee policy might be disappointed. Mr. Obama said that by the time he got into office, the Bush administration had taken â€œsteps to correct certain policies and procedures after those first couple of yearsâ€ after the Sept. 11 attacks.
He credited not Mr. Bush but the former Central Intelligence Agency director Michael V. Hayden and the former director of national intelligence Mike McConnell, who â€œreally had Americaâ€™s security interests in mind when they acted, and I think were mindful of American values and ideals.â€