WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration debates whether to shift its aims in Afghanistan, officials at the Pentagon and the White House National Security Council have begun developing "middle path" strategies for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, according to current and former officials.
Some measures under consideration include closer cooperation with local tribal chiefs and regional warlords, using CIA agents as intermediaries and cash payments as incentives, said the current and former officials, describing the potentially controversial strategies on condition of anonymity.
Other steps would concentrate U.S. and allied troops in cities, pulling out of Afghanistan's widely dispersed rural areas. However, the allied forces would push ahead with plans to intensify training of Afghan troops, officials said.
None of the strategies envision troop reductions, but officials said they do not require the 40,000-troop increase preferred by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander. A number of White House officials favor sending fewer than 20,000 additional troops. President Obama approved 21,000 additional U.S. troops this year, bringing the U.S. force to 68,000.
Obama's national security team met a fifth time on Wednesday to discuss options for Afghanistan.
Senior administration officials said later that no formal alternative to the counterinsurgency campaign outlined by McChrystal has been put on the table. But officials said Obama is considering proposals to amend McChrystal's plans.
A final strategy meeting is planned for next week, and two Defense officials said McChrystal may travel to Washington to attend that session in person, rather than by teleconference.
Anticipating a possible shift in administration strategy, Republicans have attacked any option providing fewer than 40,000 troops as risky half-measures.
One middle-path approach would be to take McChrystal's plan and "pare it down," keeping similar outlines moving troops away from less important objectives, said a former official, who served under both the Bush and Obama administrations.
The middle path strategies would not try to prescribe limits on U.S. efforts, such as by focusing on attacking on al-Qaida, a posture once favored by Vice President Joe Biden.
However, the measures are less ambitious than the in-depth counterinsurgency strategy advocated by McChrystal and other military leaders.
Cooperation with warlords and tribal chiefs could generate considerable controversy as a reflection of limited U.S. options.
During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration routinely made deals with tribal leaders and warlords to pacify parts of the country and wrest control from the Taliban.
Over the years, some of those alliances faded, while others were superseded by political deals made by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But the U.S. has continually worked to make allies of tribal elders and influential regional leaders.