Page 2 of 2   <      

For Obama, A Pivotal Moment in Afghanistan

The administration has compiled a list of about 50 measurements to use in gauging progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to be given to lawmakers by late September.

Congress mandated the measurements, which Obama promised in his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy announcement in March, when it approved a supplemental war spending bill. He has also pledged to end the Bush administration's practice of funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with such emergency measures outside the regular defense budget.

The pending 2010 budget legislation for the first time requests more money for Afghanistan-Pakistan operations than for Operation Iraqi Freedom -- $68 billion compared with $61 billion. Administration officials said they expected congressional debate on the larger Defense Department appropriation of more than half a trillion dollars to focus on Afghanistan spending.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee who spent the weekend in Afghanistan with Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), told the Providence Journal last week that he anticipated "a very vigorous debate" over the way forward. Reed, the Rhode Island paper reported, said he thinks that U.S. strategy is on the right track but that there is an urgent need for more Afghan forces.

Even before receiving McChrystal's report, Obama offered a prelude to the public case he is likely to make. "There will be more difficult days ahead," he said in a mid-August speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "The insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight, and we won't defeat it overnight. This will not be quick nor easy. But we must never forget: This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.

"Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again," Obama said. "If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people."

Obama's strategy is based on classic counterinsurgency principles designed to win over Afghans while fighting the Taliban. It includes a civilian "surge" of hundreds of new diplomatic, economic, agricultural and legal specialists this year to help develop the Afghan economy and government and the addition of 21,000 troops, bringing the total U.S. force to 68,000 by the end of this year. When it was initially discussed during Obama's first two months in office, Vice President Biden reportedly argued that the focus should be limited to counterterrorism -- direct attacks on al-Qaeda sanctuaries along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Although that discussion is ongoing in some military and administration circles, a senior defense official said, there is widespread recognition that falling back to pure counterterrorism "just can't be done" because of the stakes involved and the investment already made.

McChrystal's report, which is not yet public, is known to outline the need for a massive increase in Afghanistan's security forces, far beyond existing plans to double them. That will require more U.S. and NATO troops to train and mentor them. Senior defense officials said he has also proposed increasing intelligence and other assets and changing the geographic deployment of combat troops to increase their presence in the southern city of Kandahar, and in northern and western areas where the Taliban has shown new strength. A formal request for resources will follow the report, depending on which of McChrystal's options Obama accepts.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has long expressed concern about an oversize American military "footprint" in Afghanistan, indicated last week that he was open to increased forces, saying he took seriously McChrystal's point that U.S. troops could improve interaction with Afghans as partners and "mitigate" the risk that they would come to be seen as enemy occupiers.

<       2

© 2009 The Washington Post Company