Troop Request for Afghanistan May Come Up at White House Meeting Friday

By Jennifer Loven | October 9, 2009 | 6:03 AM EDT
Washington (AP) - The latest in a series of top-level White House meetings about the war in Afghanistan could provide a venue for the first discussion of the troop request submitted by the U.S. commander there.
The fourth of five sessions is scheduled Friday afternoon with President Barack Obama and more than a dozen key administration officials. Up to now, the lengthy Situation Room discussions involving Afghanistan and Pakistan have stuck to strategy formulation, not the resources question.
With the war beginning its ninth year and increasingly unpopular, especially in the president's own Democratic Party, the Obama administration is in the midst of an intensely debated review over how to overhaul its approach to the Afghan conflict.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is believed to have presented Obama with a range of options, from adding as few as 10,000 troops to -- the general's strong preference -- as many as 40,000.
Aides stress that the president's decision on troop levels and the other elements of a revamped approach is still at least two weeks away. They say Obama has not tipped his hand on his leanings to advisers.
But he and his team have sharpened the mission's focus to fighting al-Qaida above all other goals and downgraded the emphasis on the Taliban. As a result, Obama will determine how many more U.S. troops to deploy to Afghanistan based only on keeping al-Qaida at bay, a senior administration official told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Obama's developing strategy on the Taliban will not accept their return to power, the senior official said. But the U.S. would fight only to keep the Taliban from retaking control of Afghanistan's central government -- something it is now far from being capable of -- and from turning the country back into the sanctuary for al-Qaida that it was before the 2001 invasion ousted the regime, the official said.
The official is involved in the discussions and was authorized to speak about them but not to be identified by name because the review is still under way.
Obama's renewed determination to make defeating al-Qaida the main objective -- the same determination he made when he first announced a new Afghanistan strategy in March -- has many implications for the debate.
There now are no more than 100 al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Instead, the U.S. fight in Afghanistan is against the Taliban, now increasingly defined by the Obama team as distinct from al-Qaida. While still dangerous, the Taliban are seen as indigenous with almost entirely local and territorial aims and far less of a threat to the U.S.
Obama's team believes some elements in the Taliban are aligned with al-Qaida, with its transnational reach and aims of attacking the West, but probably not the majority and mostly for tactical rather than ideological reasons, the official said.
A focus on al-Qaida is the driving force behind an approach being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as an alternative to the McChrystal recommendation for a fuller counterinsurgency effort inside Afghanistan.
Biden has argued for keeping the American force there around the 68,000 already authorized, including the 21,000 extra troops Obama ordered earlier this year. The vice president proposes significantly increasing the use of unmanned Predator drones and special forces for the kind of surgical anti-terrorist strikes that have been successful in Pakistan and Somalia.
There also is increasing reluctance among Obama's advisers to commit large numbers of additional troops because of worries about severely strained U.S. forces and the abilities of the troubled Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai.
In Pakistan, however, the administration has been encouraged by the government's recent willingness to aggressively battle al-Qaida and Taliban extremists holed up along its border with Afghanistan. Getting additional cooperation from Pakistan is delicate, as these operations are controversial there and the U.S.-backed civilian government in Islamabad is weak. But the administration sees opportunity there nonetheless.
Obama also is prepared to accept some Taliban role in Afghanistan's political future, the official said.
Bowing to the reality that the Taliban is too ingrained in Afghanistan's culture to be entirely defeated, that could mean paving the way for Taliban members willing to renounce violence to participate in a central government -- the kind of peace talks advocated by Karzai to little receptiveness from the Taliban. It might even mean ceding some regions of the country to the Taliban.
Obama began talking positively about reaching out to moderates in the Taliban with his March review.
According to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, public support for the war has dropped to 40 percent from 44 percent in July.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he has deep concerns about a ramped-up war, citing the high cost and doubts about the cooperation of the Afghan and Pakistan governments.
Republicans, meanwhile, are urging Obama to heed the military commanders' calls soon or risk failure.
Troop Request Could Be Topic of Meeting With Obama