WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration says the Afghan war will not be won on the battlefield but it is grappling with how to make peace with the Taliban while balancing alliances it has forged with some controversial political figures.
The U.S. special representative to the region, Richard Holbrooke, told Reuters this week the United States could support bringing in "reformed Taliban" to the Afghan government but he reiterated certain "red lines" could not be crossed.
Holbrooke said Taliban leaders would be welcome only if they renounced violence and all ties to al Qaeda and abided by the Afghan constitution. No mention was made of where supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar might fit into U.S. thinking.
It is unclear how far the Obama administration will be prepared to support Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he reaches out to the Taliban. But with a July 2011 deadline for U.S. troops to start pulling out, time is not on Washington's side.
"The question is what kind of deal could we actually imagine supporting with the Taliban or the Haqqani network?" said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, referring to the militant network thought to lead attacks in the east and southeast of Afghanistan.
One option could be for Karzai to offer governor or mayoral slots to Taliban leaders in some parts of the country as long as the "red lines" were not crossed and they agreed to disband militias who could then be reintegrated into the army or police, said O'Hanlon.
"But the Taliban and Haqqani network is not going to support that yet, as to disband their militia is a huge step and they are still ambitious," O'Hanlon said.
Either way, experts say there is very little clarity from the administration over its ultimate strategy on reconciliation and how that fits into its overall counterinsurgency strategy.
"Very few people have made a clear argument of how power-sharing, reconciliation and governance will look like in Afghanistan," said Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in the U.S. capital.
In seeking to meet its goals in Afghanistan, several experts say President Barack Obama's administration has been forced to make some difficult choices over who it will work with to get its counterinsurgency strategy in place.
One example is a decision to deal with the Afghan president's half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, who wields huge power in the southern city of Kandahar and has been accused of ties to the drug trade. He strongly rejects those allegations.
"Very short-sighted calculations are made and support is provided to wrong actors -- former warlords with human rights records. There are plenty of stories," said Laurent Saillard, who heads an umbrella body representing Afghan relief groups.
U.S. officials say it was a pragmatic decision to work with Karzai's brother, although there was a plan to build up the role of Kandahar's governor, Tooryalia Wesa.
Aziz Rafiee, who heads the Afghan Civil Society Forum nongovernmental group, said there had been other recent mistakes made in supporting local leaders who did not have reputations for promoting transparent governance.
He cited the example of the district governor of Marjah area in Helmand province, where U.S. forces launched a major military push in February and helped bring in an exiled politician from Germany to help their efforts.
"Bringing someone from Germany and making them the head of the district even though they knew he was a corrupt guy is mismanagement," said Rafiee, who was in Washington this week to see senior officials about U.S. strategy in his country.
In neighboring Kandahar, O'Hanlon is concerned over the amount of business being steered by international forces to local political leaders such as Karzai's brother and other powerful figures.
"We have not figured out what kind of integrated NATO strategy will allow us to go after corruption more aggressively and what the longer-term game plan will be," said O'Hanlon.
Those tricky alliances could ultimately play badly for Obama, who faces growing impatience at home over the nine-year war both over its price tag and human cost.
With congressional elections coming up in November, Obama also has a closet full of domestic troubles from the giant deficit to the huge Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
As the elections near, lawmakers will be pushing for a clearer picture over what victory could look like in Afghanistan so U.S. forces can pull out without leaving a shambles behind them.
The Obama administration has made clear its goal is not "nation-building" in Afghanistan but rather to ensure that it is not a safe haven for groups such as al Qaeda which is blamed for the September 11 attacks against the United States.
"We are not there to build 21st century Afghanistan. none of us will be alive that long," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in London on Wednesday.