As Obama met with advisers for three hours to discuss Pakistan, the White House said he has not decided whether to approve a proposed troop buildup in Afghanistan. But the shift in thinking, outlined by senior administration officials on Wednesday, suggests that the president has been presented with an approach that would not require all of the additional troops that his commanding general in the region has requested.
It remains unclear whether everyone in the president's war Cabinet fully accepts this view. While Vice President Joe Biden has argued for months against increasing troops in Afghanistan because Pakistan was the greater priority, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have both publicly warned that the Taliban remain linked to Al-Qaida and would give its fighters safe haven again if it regained control of all or large parts of Afghanistan, making it a mistake to think of them as separate problems.
Moreover, Obama's commander there, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has argued that success demands a substantial expansion of the American presence - up to 40,000 additional troops - and any decision that provides less will expose the president to criticism, especially from Republicans, that his policy is a prescription for failure.
The White House appears to be trying to prepare the ground to counter that by focusing attention on recent successes against Al-Qaida cells in Pakistan. The approach described by administration officials on Wednesday amounts to an alternative to the analysis presented by McChrystal. If, as the White House has increasingly asserted in recent weeks, it has improved the ability of the United States to reduce the threat from Al-Qaida, then the war in Afghanistan is less important to American security.
In reviewing McChrystal's request, the White House is rethinking what was, just six months ago, a strategy that viewed Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single integrated problem, according to several administration officials and outsiders who have spoken with them. Now the discussions in the White House Situation Room are focusing on related but separate strategies for fighting Al-Qaida and the Taliban.
"Clearly, Al-Qaida is a threat not only to the US homeland and American interests abroad, but it has a murderous agenda," one senior administration official said in an interview initiated by the White House on Wednesday on condition of anonymity because the strategy review has not been finished. "We want to destroy its leadership, its infrastructure and its capability."
The official contrasted that with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which the administration has begun to define as an indigenous group that aspires to reclaim territory and rule the country, but does not express ambitions of attacking the United States. "When the two are aligned, it's mainly on the tactical front," the official said, noting that Al-Qaida has fewer than 100 fighters in Afghanistan.
Another official, who also was authorized to speak but not to be identified, said the different views of Al-Qaida and Taliban are driving the president's review.
"To the extent that Al-Qaida has been degraded, and it has, and to the extent you believe you need to focus on destroying it going forward, what is required going forward?" the official asked. "And to prevent it from having a safe haven?"
The officials argued that while Al-Qaida is a foreign body, the Taliban cannot be wholly removed from Afghanistan because it is too ingrained in the country. Moreover, the forces often described as Taliban are actually an amalgamation of militants that includes local warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network or others fighting for local grievances rather than jihadist ideology.
Obama has defined his mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan as attempting "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaida and other extremist networks around the world." But he made clear during a visit to the National Counterterrorism Center on Tuesday that the goal behind it is to protect the United States. "That's the principal threat to the American people," he said.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, repeated Wednesday that the president's "primary focus is on groups and their allies that can strike our homeland, strike our allies, or groups who would provide safe haven for those that wish to do that."
The discussion about whether the Taliban poses a threat to the United States has been at the heart of the administration's debate about what to do in Afghanistan. Some in the Biden camp maintain that the Taliban can be contained with current troop levels and eventually by Afghan forces trained by the United States. Moreover, they suggest the Taliban have no interest in letting Al-Qaida back into Afghanistan because that was what cost them power when they were toppled by American-backed Afghan rebels in 2001.
"The policy people and the intelligence people inside are having a big argument over this," said Leslie Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised Biden. "Is the Taliban a loose collection of people we can split up? Can we split the Taliban from Al-Qaida? If the Taliban comes back to power in parts of Afghanistan, are they going to bring Al-Qaida back with them?"
Some analysts say that the Taliban and Al-Qaida have actually grown closer since the first American bombs fell on the Shomali Plains north of Kabul eight years ago Tuesday.
"The kind of separation that existed between the Taliban and Al-Qaida in 2001 really doesn't exist anymore," said Anthony Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has advised McChrystal. "You have much more ideological elements in the Taliban. In the east, they're really mixed in with Al-Qaida."
Frances Fragos Townsend, who was President George W. Bush's homeland security adviser, said the two groups remain interlinked.
"It's a dangerous argument to assume that the Taliban won't revert to where they were pre-9/11 and provide Al-Qaida sanctuary," she said. Referring to McChrystal, she added: "If you don't give him the troops he asked for and continue with the Predator strikes, you can kill them one at a time but you're not going to drain the swamp."
Officials said Wednesday that McChrystal's official request for additional forces was forwarded to Obama last week.
Gates'spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said he had given Obama "an informal copy" at the president's request.
The meeting Wednesday was the president's third with his full national security team. Another is scheduled for Friday to talk about Afghanistan and then a fifth is planned, possibly for next week. Gibbs said the president is still several weeks away from a decision.