By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009
With much of his party largely opposed to expanding military operations in Afghanistan, President Obama could be forced into the awkward political position of turning to congressional Republicans for support if he follows the recommendations of the commanding U.S. general there.
Congressional Democrats have begun promoting a compromise package of additional resources for Afghanistan that would emphasize training for Afghan security forces but deny Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal the additional combat troops he has indicated he needs to regain the initiative against the Taliban insurgency. The emerging Democratic consensus is likely to constrain the president as he considers how best to proceed with an increasingly unpopular war.
On Wednesday, Obama chaired a three-hour discussion on Afghanistan with Cabinet members and senior officials at the White House. The meeting was largely a reassessment of the past eight years of American involvement in the region, with the president repeatedly probing his military and civilian advisers to justify their assumptions, according to one participant. This source said there was a recognition that the decision facing Obama is one of the most critical of his presidency.
In interviews over the past week, Democratic leaders have endorsed the change in military focus and the expedited training of Afghan forces that McChrystal outlined in his stark initial assessment of the war. But they expressed deep misgivings over McChrystal's impending request for as many as 40,000 new U.S. troops. Some argue that any increase in the U.S. military presence would help the Taliban whip up public anger toward an expanding foreign occupation that already comprises more than 100,000 U.S. and NATO soldiers and Marines.
"We basically need a much larger Afghan army much quicker -- that's the bottom line, that's the winning strategy," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Before we commit to additional combat forces, which has a distinct negative, not only for our overstretched troops but also the footprint argument, I believe we must do these other things that are the best way to succeed."
Levin's argument is echoed by many Democrats in the Senate, which is set to vote this week on a $636 billion defense appropriations bill, including $128 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress would be called on to approve additional funds if Obama decides to expand the war effort in Afghanistan.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said history demands that the administration and Congress vet the mission before committing more forces. "In Vietnam, we heard the commanding general on the ground saying we need more troops. We heard the president of the United States say if we just put in more troops, we're going to see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said in an interview for The Washington Post's "Voices of Power" series. "And the fact is that they were wrong because they never examined the underlying assumptions on which our involvement was based."
Recent opinion polls have shown that only a minority of Americans believe the war is worth fighting, and the flawed presidential election in August has eroded the Obama administration's confidence in the Afghan government. Much of the opposition to the war is rooted in Obama's political base, which is angry that he is ending one war in Iraq only to expand another in Afghanistan, even though he pledged in his campaign to do just that.
Obama and his senior advisers, including McChrystal, who participated by video link, on Wednesday concluded two days of initial discussions on the general's assessment. The talks marked the first formal internal White House debate over the report's recommendations, which, if carried out in full, would greatly expand the U.S. commitment to the war in Afghanistan, in terms of both military presence and civilian assistance to build a more stable government from the provinces to Kabul.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made clear in a meeting with Post editors this week that he supports the counterinsurgency strategy that Obama endorsed in March and that is the basis of McChrystal's plan.
"Basically I share [McChrystal's] view," Rasmussen said. The right policy, he added, "is definitely not an exit strategy. It's of crucial importance to stress that we will stay as long as it takes to stabilize the country."
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the administration is asking questions about the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan "that frankly have not been asked over the last eight years."
The official said the discussions are focusing on how best to pursue "our core national security goals," which the official defined as defeating al-Qaeda and its allies. But the official indicated that an array of alternatives are under review.
"I don't know if there is such a thing as middle option, because I know there are more than two options," the official said.
In his 66-page report, first published by The Post, McChrystal warned that "a failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum" in the next 12 months "risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." He stated that "resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing could lose it."
In the administration, there are divisions on whether to send more resources to Afghanistan or adopt a more narrow counterterrorism campaign that would avoid some of the long-term nation-building tasks that McChrystal considers necessary.
In the past, Vice President Biden has advocated a strategy of shrinking the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and concentrating on disrupting al-Qaeda and its allies through drone strikes and Special Forces operations. Now anti-war Democrats on the Hill are pushing for that option.
"We should use the same approach that we take in parts of the world that we have not invaded," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, citing U.S. operations in Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere.
The emerging Democratic position could compel Obama, whose domestic agenda is facing stiff Republican criticism in Congress, to rely on those same opposition lawmakers for support if he decides to send more combat troops to Afghanistan.
Doing so would give Obama far less flexibility in devising his own plan, given that Republicans have strongly favored giving McChrystal what he asks for. As Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said last week: "I'm against a half-measure. That's the worst scenario. . . . If you do what the commanders recommend, I will be an enthusiastic supporter of the president."
Feingold warned that "it would probably not be a good idea for the president to rely on Republicans and a handful of Democrats."
McChrystal, whom Obama sent to Afghanistan in May after firing his predecessor, is expected to soon request thousands of additional combat troops, support forces and military trainers. His timeline for more resources roughly coincides with the U.S. withdrawal schedule from Iraq, which calls for all U.S. forces to leave the country by the end of 2011.
At the conclusion of an initial review in March, Obama approved 21,000 additional combat troops for Afghanistan. By the end of the year, 68,000 U.S. troops are scheduled to be on the ground.
Lee H. Hamilton, the former Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who has many former aides working on Obama's national security team, said that "everyone likes the training of troops, which is something we've not been very good at." But he said the key question is whether Congress, if it approves the resources for McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy, will continue that level of support for the years it will take to stabilize Afghanistan.
Even the most politically popular aspects of the administration's Afghan strategy are meeting resistance in Congress.
Last week, a Senate panel stripped $900 million from the administration's $6.6 billion request to train and equip Afghan security forces. In a statement opposing the decision, the White House said the "full request reflects his commanders' plan for Afghan forces to assume a greater share of responsibility for security as quickly as possible."
Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said: "This is a very complex stew here, and the McChrystal report is only one element of that stew. It's clear we're at a major decision point in Afghanistan, and unfortunately it comes as we're at a major decision point on health care, a major decision point on climate change, a major decision point on financial regulation and the economy," he said.
Staff writers Ben Pershing, Paul Kane, Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.