By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 21, 2009; A01
From his headquarters in Kabul, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal sees one clear path to achieve President Obama's core goal of preventing al-Qaeda from reestablishing havens in Afghanistan: "Success," he writes in his assessment, "demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign."
Inside the White House, the way forward in Afghanistan is no longer so clear.
Although Obama endorsed a strategy document in March that called for "executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy," there have been significant changes in Afghanistan and Washington since then. A disputed presidential election, an erosion in support for the war effort among Democrats in Congress and the American public, and a sharp increase in U.S. casualties have prompted the president and his top advisers to reexamine their assumptions about the U.S. role in defeating the Taliban insurgency.
Instead of debating whether to give McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, more troops, the discussion in the White House is now focused on whether, after eight years of war, the United States should vastly expand counterinsurgency efforts along the lines he has proposed -- which involve an intensive program to improve security and governance in key population centers -- or whether it should begin shifting its approach away from such initiatives and simply target leaders of terrorist groups who try to return to Afghanistan.
McChrystal's assessment, in the view of two senior administration officials, is just "one input" in the White House's decision-making process. The president, another senior administration official said, "has embarked on a very, very serious review of all options." The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.
Obama, appearing on several Sunday-morning television news shows, left little doubt that key assumptions in the earlier White House strategy are now on the table. "The first question is: Are we doing the right thing?" the president said on CNN. "Are we pursuing the right strategy?"
"Until I'm satisfied that we've got the right strategy, I'm not going to be sending some young man or woman over there -- beyond what we already have," Obama said on NBC's "Meet the Press." If an expanded counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan contributes to the goal of defeating al-Qaeda, "then we'll move forward," he said. "But, if it doesn't, then I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or . . . sending a message that America is here for the duration."
National security adviser James L. Jones said Sunday that McChrystal's assessment "will be analyzed as to whether it is in sync with the strategy that the president announced in March."
The assessment "could be accepted in its entirety," Jones said. Alternatively, he added, the White House could seek additional analysis from McChrystal, or Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates could issue new guidance to him about his mission and strategy.
In his 66-page assessment, McChrystal does not address other approaches to combating the Taliban. A senior U.S. military official in Kabul said the general was operating under the assumption that the earlier White House endorsement of a counterinsurgency approach "was a settled issue."
McChrystal said he thinks the way to meet the president's relatively narrow objective of denying al-Qaeda's return to Afghanistan involves a wide-ranging U.S. and NATO effort to protect civilians from insurgents by improving the Afghan government's effectiveness. That means not only more troops, but also a far more aggressive program to train Afghan security forces, promote good local governance, root out corruption, reform the justice sector, pursue narcotics traffickers, increase reconstruction activities and change the way U.S. troops interact with the Afghan population.
The implicit recommendation is that the United States and its NATO partners need to do more nation-building, and they need to do it quickly.
Improving the Afghan government, McChrystal says -- particularly the effectiveness of its security forces and its ability to deliver basic services to the population -- is as critical as offensive actions against insurgents. He defines the defeat of the Taliban not as the moment when the insurgents are vanquished, but when the international community has built a strong enough Afghan government so that "the insurgency no longer threatens the viability of the state."
Although McChrystal does not make a request for a specific number of troops in the assessment -- he has prepared, but not yet submitted to the Pentagon, another document that outlines his resource requests -- senior military officials said they expect him to call for a significant increase in forces to implement the strategy.
But senior U.S. officials in Washington contend that much about Afghanistan has changed since March, when Obama stood before a row of flags, flanked by his secretaries of state and defense, and announced the new strategy. The dynamics have even shifted since McChrystal arrived in mid-June and began his assessment.
The principal game-changer, in the view of White House officials, was Afghanistan's presidential election last month, which was compromised by fraud, much of it in support of President Hamid Karzai. Although the results have not been certified, he almost certainly will remain in office, but under a cloud of illegitimacy that could complicate U.S. efforts to promote good governance.
Congressional Democrats have also expressed new doubts about sending more forces to Afghanistan. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said last week that 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 M. Levin (Mich.), an influential voice on military matters, said the administration should not send additional forces until more Afghan soldiers have been trained.
The American public, which had broadly supported Obama's determination to focus on Afghanistan instead of Iraq, has begun to question the wisdom of the continued U.S. commitment. The Afghan war was deemed "not worth fighting" by 51 percent of respondents in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Obama insisted in interviews aired Sunday that he will not be rushed into making a decision.
"We're not going to put the cart before the horse and just think that by sending more troops, we're automatically going to make Americans safe," he said.
The president, one adviser said, is "taking a very deliberate, rational approach, starting at the top" of what he called a "logic chain" that begins with setting objectives, followed by determining a methodology to achieve them. Only when the first two steps are completed, he said, can the third step -- a determination of resources -- be taken.
"Who's to say we need more troops?" this official said. "McChrystal is not responsible for assessing how we're doing against al-Qaeda."
The administration's template for error is the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. Initially, a small group of White House and Pentagon officials set the policy without regard for dissenting views; in later years, President George W. Bush said he was following advice from military commanders. "We have seen what happens when an administration makes decisions by momentum and doesn't challenge underlying assumptions and . . . ensure that everybody with an equity in the matter is heard," another official said.
Among the key players shaping Obama's thinking on Afghanistan is Gates. The defense secretary has repeatedly expressed concern about the size of the military's footprint in Afghanistan even as he has acknowledged that McChrystal's plans have eased that anxiety.
Some officials charge that the military has been trying to push Obama into a corner with public statements such as those by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the situation in Afghanistan is "serious and deteriorating" and "probably needs more forces." One official questioned whether McChrystal had already gone beyond his writ with public statements describing the protection of the Afghan population as more important than killing Taliban fighters.
When Obama announced his strategy in March, there were few specifics fleshing out his broad goals, and the military was left to interpret how to implement them. As they struggle over how to adjust to changing reality on the ground, some in the administration have begun to fault McChrystal for taking the policy beyond where Obama intended, with no easy exit.
But Obama's deliberative pace -- he has held only one meeting of his top national security advisers to discuss McChrystal's report so far -- is a source of growing consternation within the military. "Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let's have a discussion," one Pentagon official said. "Will you read it and tell us what you think?" Within the military, this official said, "there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration."
Staff writer Bob Woodward contributed to this report.