White House Casts Doubt on Afghan Reliability As It Mulls Troop Decision
But it was unclear whether Obama intends to accept the recommendation by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for thousands more American troops and other resources in the 8-year-struggle to stabilize Afghanistan.
The central question before Obama, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said, is "not how much troops you have, but whether in fact there's an Afghan partner."
The issue of developing an effective Afghan central government has dogged the U.S. mission virtually from the war's start after the attacks against the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. It gained new urgency after an Aug. 20 presidential election marred by charges of ballot-stuffing and voter coercion.
An election fraud investigation could lead to a runoff election between President Hamid Karzai and his top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
A second round of balloting would have to be held before winter, which traditionally begins in mid-November. Once heavy snows block mountain passes, thereby limiting voter access to polling places, a runoff would have to wait until spring, leaving the country in political limbo for months as the Taliban gains strength.
Adding to the uncertainty is the prospect of Karzai's not accepting an outcome requiring a runoff.
"For the moment we are worried ... because it seems that not everybody is ready to accept the results," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters Sunday in Kabul, the Afghan capital. "They must accept the results."
The weakness of the Afghan government has undermined the U.S. and NATO military mission in several respects. It has created disillusionment among ordinary Afghans who then turn to the Taliban militants for security and other services. That has been an important factor in the Taliban's resurgence over the past four years.
In Sunday talk show interviews, Emanuel did not answer directly when asked whether Obama would wait for a final election outcome before deciding U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. He repeatedly underlined doubts about the Kabul government as a reliable partner for the U.S.
"There's not a security force, an army, the type of services that are important for the Afghans to become true partners," Emanuel said. "It would be reckless to make a decision on U.S. troop level if, in fact, you haven't done a thorough analysis of whether, in fact, there's an Afghan partner ready to fill that space that the U.S. troops would create and become a true partner in governing."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, who visited Kabul over the weekend, said Obama should wait until the election cloud has lifted.
"I don't see how President Obama can make a decision about the committing of our additional forces or even the further fulfillment of our mission that's here today without an adequate government in place or knowledge about what that government's going to be," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Critics, including some Republicans in Congress, have blasted Obama for undertaking a lengthy review.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Obama may be emboldening U.S. enemies.
"At some point, deliberation begins to look more like indecisiveness, which then becomes a way of emboldening our enemies," Cornyn said, "and causing our allies to question our resolve."
Emanuel provided no timeline for Obama to finish his Afghan review, which began in September. He said additional strategy sessions with the president's senior national security aides would be held over the next two weeks.
A leading figure in that review, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, headed to Asia and Europe on Sunday for talks that are expected to include a plea for NATO partners and Asian allies to continue contributing to the Afghan effort.
Kerry said a successful U.S. and NATO mission depends as much on the effectiveness of the Afghan government and the sufficiency of international civilian support as it does on the size of the U.S. military presence.
"It would be very hard, I think, for the president to make a commitment to `X' number of troops, whatever it might be, or to a new strategy, without knowing that all of the components of the strategy are indeed capable of being achieved," Kerry said, adding that the political and civilian components must be assured.
"And I'm not yet convinced that we're there," he said.
On the specifics of U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, Kerry said he is convinced that narrowing the mission to a hunt for al-Qaida and other terrorists would be wrong. The counterterrorism effort must be part of a larger military mission that targets Taliban and other insurgent groups with conventional ground forces, he said.
Kerry and Emanuel were on CNN's "State of the Union" and CBS' "Face the Nation." Cornyn appeared on CBS.