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thedrifter
10-01-09, 07:31 AM
Administration mulls next step in Afghanistan
By Lara Jakes and Steven R. Hurst - The Associated Press
Posted : Wednesday Sep 30, 2009 21:54:31 EDT

WASHINGTON — With top commanders and congressional Republicans pushing for more troops, President Barack Obama pressed key members of his national security team on their views on Afghanistan war Wednesday during a three-hour marathon session that ended with no decisions on strategy changes or troop increases.

There was no specific discussion of troop levels during the meeting in the Situation Room in the White House basement, according to a senior administration official. But the talks revealed the emerging fault lines within the administration on the issue, with military commanders solidly behind the request for additional troops and other key officials divided.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and special Afghan and Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke appeared to be leaning toward supporting a troop increase, but are not yet ready, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were private. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and retired Marine general James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, appeared to be less supportive, the official said.

The meeting, the second of at least five Obama has planned as he reviews his Afghanistan strategy, comes after Obama received a critical assessment of the war effort from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the man he put in charge of the Afghan war earlier this year. McChrystal declared that the U.S. would fail to meet its objectives of causing irreparable damage to Taliban militants and their al-Qaida allies if the administration did not significantly increase American forces.

Obama has taken a go-slow approach on the McChrystal report. White House officials say it may take weeks before the president decides whether to overhaul the U.S. strategy or send more troops.

Jones told senators in a classified briefing after the White House meeting that the administration’s evolving Afghanistan strategy depends in large part on the outcome of the disputed Afghan election. Those decisions are expected in a matter of weeks.

“It’s not just the election, but the reaction to the election, that we’ll be watching for,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.

One alternative to McChrystal’s call for additional troops for a counterinsurgency is to use special forces and unmanned drone aircraft for tactical strikes on the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership, a move that would require much more U.S. action in Pakistan but fewer troops.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates “has clearly been a strong proponent of counterinsurgency” organized by McChrystal, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said earlier Wednesday. “But he wants to have a thorough discussion with the president and the rest of the national security team” about whether that remains the best strategy for crushing the militant forces.

Vice President Joe Biden, who joined the discussions in the White House basement, also favors this approach.

While the Pentagon has so far locked away specifics of McChrystal’s troop request, he is widely believed to want to add between 30,000 and 40,000 to the current force of 68,000.

The senior administration official said Obama has refused to prejudge what his conclusion would he and hasn’t been forthcoming with his opinions.

Much of Wednesday’s discussion was focused on how Afghanistan has changed since Obama sent 21,000 additional troops to the country in March and what remains to be done. The president heard from 17 high-level officials and pressed them on their views and how they reached their conclusions.

In the end, though, Obama asked the group to meet with him twice more next week.

Obama is moving with extreme deliberation even though he said during the presidential campaign that defeating the Taliban militants and al-Qaida was essential to U.S. security. He moved swiftly on that pledge in the early days of his term, ordering the additional forces.

Including NATO forces, the allies have about 100,000 personnel in Afghanistan’s rugged terrain.

But key Democrats in Congress have begun voicing concern about the U.S.-led effort, questioning whether a further commitment of blood and treasure is wise or necessary. The most vocal support for continuing or even expanding the conflict comes from Republicans.

Support for the war has fallen off sharply among Americans, with just more than half now saying the conflict is not worth the fight.

Republican Sen. John McCain, Obama’s opponent in last year’s election, said in a television interview Wednesday that the president cannot give up on Afghanistan. The Arizona senator argued that the entire region would be destabilized if the U.S. and NATO pulled back.

Urging Obama to quickly accept McChrystal’s recommendations, McCain said: “Time is not on our side. So we need a decision pretty quickly. I think history is pretty clear that when the Taliban took over, it became a base for attacks on the United States and our allies.”

Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the No. 2 House Republican, said that Obama was endangering U.S. troops in Afghanistan by spending time weighing his next move in Afghanistan. “As long as they are delaying, that puts in jeopardy, I believe, our men and women,” he said.

The U.S. went to war in Afghanistan in late 2001 with a mission to remove the Taliban from power and to capture or kill al-Qaida boss Osama bin Laden, the sponsor of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The Taliban fell quickly, but bin Laden escaped across the border into the towering mountains in Pakistan and has eluded American forces since.

In the meantime, the Taliban have staged a resurgence and now have taken control of more than half the country. The insurgents have regained so much strength that August became the deadliest month of the war so far for U.S. troops. Fifty-one died.

Wednesday’s White House session was believed to have been the most high-powered gathering so far.

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Associated Press writers Philip Elliott, Pam Hess and Lita Baldor contributed to this report.

Ellie