WASHINGTON — President Obama is prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan's political future and will determine how many more U.S. troops to send to the war based only on keeping al-Qaida at bay, a senior administration official said Thursday.
The sharpened focus by Obama's team on fighting al-Qaida above all other goals, while downgrading the emphasis on the Taliban, comes in the midst of an intensely debated administration review of the increasingly unpopular war.
The White House has told the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan to delay a planned trip here today to brief Obama and his senior advisers on his recommendation for a major troop increase.
Officials had hoped to have Gen. Stanley McChrystal and what national security adviser James Jones called "all the key players" speak to Obama in person by the end of this week, leading to final deliberations over a forward strategy.
But "we're not finished," Jones said Thursday, and meetings may extend beyond next week. When the White House is ready, he said, McChrystal — along with the U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan and Pakistan — will fly to Washington so that the three "can meet with the president before a decision is made."
Aides stress that the president's decision on specific troop levels and the other elements of a revamped approach is still at least two weeks away, and they say Obama has not tipped his hand in meetings that will continue at the White House today.
But the thinking emerging from the strategy-formulation portion of the debate offers a clue that Obama would be unlikely to favor a large military increase of the kind being advocated by McChrystal.
Obama's developing strategy on the Taliban will "not tolerate their return to power," the senior official said in an interview with the Associated Press. But the U.S. would fight only to keep the Taliban from retaking control of Afghanistan's central government and from giving renewed sanctuary in Afghanistan to al-Qaida, the official said.