By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009
President Obama has not set a deadline for determining a new strategy or for committing more troops to the war in Afghanistan, despite an urgent request from his top commander, his national security adviser said Saturday.
In a lengthy telephone interview, retired Gen. James L. Jones outlined Obama's plans for reassessing the war effort. Jones noted that although the administration has seen some progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it remains uncertain about the outcome of President Hamid Karzai's contentious bid for reelection.
Obama has scheduled at least five meetings with his national security team over the next weeks to reexamine the strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Tuesday marks the start of five scheduled intensive discussions with the National Security Council, as well as field commanders and regional ambassadors, on Afghanistan," Jones said.
He said he expects two of the meetings to be held the next week but stressed that there is no target date to complete the review. "I don't have a deadline in my mind. I think the most important thing is to do it right. But it is going to have a high priority in the administration to do this pretty relentlessly. We have a lot of other things on the table as well."
In his Aug. 30 classified assessment, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and International Security Assistance Force commander, said he urgently needs more troops within the next year or his mission will "likely result in failure." McChrystal advocated a full counterinsurgency strategy in which the military aggressively and systematically protects the Afghan population, and will request 10,000 to 40,000 more troops to carry out his counterinsurgency mission, according to sources.
The upcoming meetings will begin with the assumption that the McChrystal strategy is correct, Jones said, adding that the president will "encourage free-wheeling discussion" and that "nothing is off the table."
Asked why al-Qaeda, which is comparatively safe in its current sanctuaries in Pakistan, would want to return to Afghanistan, where more than 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops are stationed, Jones said, "That's a good question. . . . This is certainly one of the questions that we will be discussing. This is one of the questions, for example, that one could come back at with General McChrystal."
Jones said it remains possible that, after a decision on strategy by the president, McChrystal might change his mind about the need for more troops. "We will ask General McChrystal, and say, 'Okay, now that you've heard what our strategy is, does this affect your thinking in terms of your resources and, if so, how?' " Jones said.
Other advisers have pushed markedly different approaches to the conflict. Vice President Biden has urged Obama to adopt a traditional counterterrorism strategy focusing on military strikes against al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Taliban in Afghanistan. This would presumably require fewer troops, possibly fewer than the 68,000 U.S. forces the president has already authorized.
Obama's calculations about how to proceed in Afghanistan are occurring as the war is presenting a political challenge at home. Congressional Democrats have become increasingly skeptical about the war; Republicans voice support for McChrystal's assessment and the likely troop request.
Jones stressed that the president and his advisers will spend the coming weeks focusing on strategy before addressing any troop request.
"The bumper sticker here is strategy before resources," said Jones, adding: "This isn't just about more troops."
Jones said the Aug. 20 Afghan election, rife with allegations of ballot stuffing and other fraud, caused the administration to pause. The president wants "to make sure this comes out as a legitimate election."
As of Saturday, Jones said, "It is hard to predict whether the results will be that Karzai will be declared a winner or there will be a runoff. . . . We don't know how it's going to turn out."
The administration hopes that there will be a resolution to the election by early October and that any possible runoff election would be carried out before winter.
On the positive front, Jones said the Pakistani military has been "proactive" and "pulled troops off their Indian border" to launch successful operations against the Taliban in Pakistan.
When Obama announced the current Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy on March 27, he also planned to review the effectiveness of the strategy after the Afghan election, Jones said.
"I don't think anybody in the allied effort seriously thinks that Afghanistan is about to fall to the Taliban," Jones said. He added that two-thirds of Afghans live in areas that are "completely under government and local control, and are doing reasonably well."
Though Obama is conducting a broad strategic review, Jones said, "Some things have already been decided. We know we're going to build the Afghan army at a faster rate. We know we're going to do the same for the police."
Jones said the challenges Obama faces in the Afghan war are more "complex" and "bigger than the surge" decision President George W. Bush faced in Iraq three years ago.
In early 2007, Bush ordered the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Iraq as a "surge" to assist in the counterinsurgency strategy of protecting Iraqis. The surge is now regarded as one of several factors that helped stabilize Iraq and reduce violence there.
"This is bigger than the surge," Jones said. "This is more complex. There are more moving parts."
Josh Boak and Evelyn Duffy contributed to this report.