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Obama Administration At A Crossroads In Its Afghan Strategy

U.S. Marines keep watch on a hilltop during a patrol in Helmand Province on September 21.
U.S. Marines keep watch on a hilltop during a patrol in Helmand Province on September 21.
The Obama administration is at a crossroads in its strategy for Afghanistan.

One choice, urged by the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is to commit significantly more resources to the struggle to secure the country against the resurgent Taliban.

Essentially, that means nation-building and all that goes with it: more U.S. troops, more training of Afghan forces, efforts to promote local good governance and root out corruption, and increased reconstruction activities.

The other choice, revealed in leaks to the press by administration officials, is almost the opposite. That is, to focus on America's original post-9/11 goal in Afghanistan of assuring Al-Qaeda is unable to use the country as a base for its operations.

To achieve this goal would require targeting leaders of terrorist groups who try to return to Afghanistan -- mostly from their present bases in Pakistan's border area.

Two senior administration officials have told The Associated Press privately that the White House is looking at expanding counterterrorism operations in Pakistan -- including greater use of missile attacks from drones -- as an alternative to a major military escalation in Afghanistan.

Obama has not given any hint of which of these two ends of the spectrum he favors. But he has signaled repeatedly in recent days that he has embarked on a serious review of all the options.

Asked on a U.S. television talk show on September 21 whether he plans to send more troops to Afghanistan, Obama replied that he would be "asking some very hard questions" before making any decisions.

Similar Signals

Other senior officials have signaled the same.

"We have a process going on with respect to our strategy in Afghanistan. As the president has said, it's strategy before resources," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on September 21.

"We're soliciting and receiving advice and assessments from a broad range of those who are directly involved [in the Afghan mission], and of course we welcome General McChrystal's thoughts. But that's a classified pre-decisional memo, and we are looking to integrate everything that we're doing, and then of course the president will make his decisions."

McChrystal's 66-page memo, assessing needs in Afghanistan, was recently leaked to the U.S. press in unclassified form.

Clinton's emphasis on the memo as "pre-decisional" -- that is, as one, albeit significant, bit of information to consider in making a decision -- underlines the sense that Washington is now at a crossroads in its Afghanistan strategy.

The sense of being at a crossroads may seem surprising, given that as recently as March the White House announced what appeared to be a comprehensive strategy based on committing more resources to Afghanistan.

As Obama said at the time, "America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq." He also said an additional 17,000 U.S. soldiers would go to Afghanistan, a number that later was increased to 21,000.

But McChyrstal's request for new resources is beyond those March commitments and enough appears to have changed in the Afghan equation in the meantime to make the White House reluctant to simply keep escalating its commitment.

Public Support Slipping

One of the things that has occurred is the Afghan elections. The White House had hoped the election would bolster nation-building by giving the next Afghan president a strong new popular mandate. Instead, the election results have been disputed by candidates charging widespread fraud, much of it allegedly in support of incumbent Hamid Karzai. The results have not yet been certified, but Karzai now looks likely to have a weaker mandate in his new term than he had before.

At the same time, support for the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan appears to be slipping among the American public. A recent opinion poll shows 58 percent of respondents saying they are against the war.

And even some key leaders in Obama's Democratic Party have expressed growing doubts about sending more forces to Afghanistan.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week she does not "think there's a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or the Congress."

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin said the administration should not send additional forces until more Afghan soldiers have been trained.

McChrystal did not specifically call in his memo for more troops and did not put a number on how many would be needed to win in Afghanistan. But he did say "inadequate resources will likely result in failure" and warned that "failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum" in the next 12 months risks "an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."

McChrystal has already made some changes in U.S. troop operations in Afghanistan that reflect his concerns.

"The Washington Post" reports that he has told his commanders to pull forces out of sparsely populated areas and focus upon protecting major Afghan population centers.

The newspaper cites U.S. officials as saying privately that the moves reflect the military's sense that some remote regions of Afghanistan are not going to be brought under government control anytime soon.

McChrystal said in his assessment of the war that U.S. and NATO forces should "initially focus on critical high-population centers that are controlled or contested by insurgents."

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