For Obama, A Pivotal Moment in Afghanistan

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

President Obama must decide in the coming weeks whether a greater investment of troops and resources in Afghanistan is worth the political risk if Americans do not soon perceive better results on the ground.

Obama's national security team will debate recommendations from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for a continuation, with some adjustments, of the aggressive security and nation-building effort the administration has put in place. McChrystal has provided a range of options for expansion, each offering the possibility of a better eventual outcome.

"Whenever you have to have a debate" over how much more investment may be needed, "you're implicitly saying you're failing," said Michael O'Hanlon, senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But if you're failing, how do you give people hope that you will succeed?"

With Taliban insurgents gaining ground and U.S. combat deaths increasing, an unusual and still small mix of liberal Democrats and conservative pundits has called for Obama to cut U.S. losses in Afghanistan and concentrate more directly on his stated objective of destroying al-Qaeda, which is based in neighboring Pakistan.

The more indirect goals of defeating the Taliban and preventing Afghanistan from ever again serving as an operational base for global terrorists, some argue, are distractions that are both too costly and too difficult. Although the administration has said it needs 12 to 18 months to show that its strategy is working, recent opinion polls indicate that a growing number of Americans agree that the ground war may not be worth fighting.

"It is time we discuss a flexible timetable for withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan," Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) said in a statement issued late last month. The conservative writer George Will, in a widely discussed column last week, called for a substantial reduction in U.S. troops.

Former Republican senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who accompanied Obama on a trip to Iraq during last year's political campaign, publicly advised Obama last week to listen to recordings of conversations that President Lyndon B. Johnson had with then-Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) about Vietnam. Obama, Hagel said, should focus on "those in which LBJ told Russell that we would not win in Vietnam but that he did not want to pull out and be the first American president to lose a war."

Asked whether the administration would consider reversing its strategy in the direction of withdrawal, a senior official said: "The president's view is that there are a lot of good ideas out there and we should hear them all. When you come down to the question of governance, we've seen what happens when one viewpoint is not particularly debated or challenged or reviewed or measured."

The reference is to the administration of George W. Bush, in which questions raised internally about the invasion of Iraq and detention policies for terrorism suspects were discouraged and quickly discounted.

"I don't anticipate that the briefing books for the principals on these debates over the next weeks and months will be filled with submissions from opinion columnists," the senior official said. "I do anticipate they will be filled with vigorous discussion . . . of how successful we've been to date."

But this official and others, who agreed to speak about the upcoming national security discussions on the condition of anonymity, gave no indication that withdrawal would be seriously considered. "There's not a lot of rethinking that the strategy we have pretty much worked on to go forward with needs some drastic or dramatic revision," a second official said.

"We can't deny that they've had their successes," the second official said of the Taliban. But McChrystal's recommendations are "all in the scope of how do you refine your tactics, not your strategy."

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