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By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama held three hours of talks with top advisers on a new strategy for Afghanistan on Wednesday, with some aides emphasizing the main threat to U.S. interests is al Qaeda, not the Taliban.
The administration's analysis of the threat posed by the Taliban could play a role in whether Obama accepts part or all of U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 or more extra U.S. troops for Afghanistan.
Some of Obama's fellow Democrats in the U.S. Congress oppose sending more troops, while Republicans favour deploying more and believe Obama should go ahead and make up his mind.
As U.S. and NATO casualties have soared, public support for the eight-year-old war has eroded.
Obama gathered in the White House Situation Room with Vice President Joe Biden and other senior aides for a fifth session about Afghanistan with another scheduled for next week, as the president takes his time in deciding the future U.S. course there. A decision could be weeks away, officials say.
A dominant theme of Wednesday's talks was how to speed the training of Afghanistan police and military forces so they could provide security for their country, as well as bolster U.S. civilian efforts there, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
McChrystal's proposed increase -- on top of the 65,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 allied forces now in Afghanistan -- and the broader strategy review present Obama with what may be the most difficult decision of his presidency thus far.
Gibbs made clear Obama was not considering a reduction in U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan and that the only options under consideration were maintaining current levels or increasing them.
He said the political situation was discussed as well. Obama's review has been complicated by delays to the outcome of the August presidential election in Afghanistan, held up by elaborate efforts to wipe clean the widespread fraud that marred the vote.
COMPREHENSIVE STRATEGY
A White House official said Obama was focussed on the complexity of the situation and the need for a comprehensive strategy with a security and civilian component.
"That is why we were focussed today, for instance, on the civilian/Afghan political situation and the training of Afghan Security Forces. Achieving our goals depends on variables that include -- but go beyond -- the extraordinary effort of our troops," the official said.
Republican Senator John Kyl, in a speech on the Senate floor, called on Obama to bolster troop levels in Afghanistan.
"My concern is that this continuing public debate is going to raise doubts around the world about the staying power of the United States and about our willingness to continue commitments that we make," Kyl said.
Democratic Senator Robert Byrd questioned a large increase in troop strength. "I am compelled to ask: Does it really, really take 100,000 U.S. troops to find Osama bin Laden?"
In London, the BBC reported that the Obama administration had told the British government it would soon announce "a substantial boost to its military forces in Afghanistan."
The BBC said the U.S. troop increase "could exceed 40,000," but it provided no source for the information.
"I've seen the report. It's not true, either generically or specifically," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Wednesday.
Administration officials have made a point of stressing in recent days that they do not see the Taliban as a direct threat to the United States on a par with al Qaeda, a view that some analysts have taken to mean that Obama might not see the need for a sizable troop buildup.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who participated in the talks via audio link from her plane after leaving Russia for Washington, would not say which way she was leaning in an interview with ABC News' "Nightline" show.
She said not every member of the Taliban movement was associated with al Qaeda, the extremist group that launched the September 11 attacks and prompted the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, where the Taliban, then ruling the nation, had given al Qaeda sanctuary.
She said part of the problem was "to sort out who is the real enemy. Our goal is to disrupt, dismantle, defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies. But not every Taliban is al Qaeda," Clinton said in the interview to be aired on Wednesday night.
Republicans and some Democrats fear if sufficient forces are not sent, the Taliban could regain control of Afghanistan and again provide a safe haven for al Qaeda as well as increase pressure on nuclear-armed Pakistan.
(Editing by Philip Barbara and Peter Cooney)

Reuters