That Biden took the lead, says one former national-security official, may be a sign that he has the president's support. "Biden is playing a very inside game," says the official. "He's in every meeting." In early October, the vice president held a private session to discuss war strategy with two members of the administration who are considered among the more hawkish members of Obama's team: Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the State Department's special adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, Biden and Obama, both former senators, are said to be relying on the counsel of a pair of relatively dovish former colleagues, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has recently made comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam. Also weighing in, apparently to advise against sending more troops, has been Colin Powell, who met quietly with Obama in mid-September.
Supporters of Biden's view argue that adding more troops would actually make the problem worse, not better, because the Taliban draw support from the fiercely nationalist Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who will mobilize to resist a long-term occupation. "The real fact is, the more people we put in, the more opposition there will be," says Selig Harrison, a longtime observer of Afghanistan at the Center for International Policy, a think tank formed in the wake of the Vietnam War by former diplomats and peace activists. The only exit strategy that might work, say Harrison and others, is dramatically reducing the U.S. military role in Afghanistan, shifting the focus from the Taliban to Al Qaeda, and stepping up political and diplomatic efforts. Such an initiative would also require an intensive push to secure support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — which maintain links to the Taliban — as well as Iran, Russia, India and China.
"There's only one mission there that we can accomplish," says Michael Scheuer, who led the CIA's anti-Osama bin Laden unit for years. "To go into Afghanistan, kill Al Qaeda, do as much damage to the Taliban as possible and leave."
Opponents of that approach insist that it would allow Al Qaeda to re-establish a safe haven in Afghanistan and resume plotting attacks. But many terrorism experts point out that Al Qaeda doesn't need Afghanistan as a base of operations, since it can plan actions from Pakistan or, for that matter, from a mosque in London or Hamburg. "We deal with Al Qaeda in every country in the world without invading the country," says Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat who serves on both the Senate foreign-relations and intelligence committees. "We deal with them in Indonesia, the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia, in European countries, in our own country, with various means that range from law enforcement to military action to other kinds of actions."
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