By Scott Wilson and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 2, 2009
Senior White House officials have begun to make the case for a policy shift in Afghanistan that would send few, if any, new combat troops to the country and instead focus on faster military training of Afghan forces, continued assassinations of al-Qaeda leaders and support for the government of neighboring Pakistan in its fight against the Taliban.
In a three-hour meeting Wednesday at the White House, senior advisers challenged some of the key assumptions in Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's blunt assessment of the nearly eight-year-old war, which President Obama has said is being fought to destroy al-Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan and the ungoverned border areas of Pakistan.
McChrystal, commander of the 100,000 NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has asked Obama to quickly endorse his call for a change in military strategy and approve the additional resources he needs to retake the initiative from the resurgent Taliban.
But White House officials are resisting McChrystal's call for urgency, which he underscored Thursday during a speech in London, and questioning important elements of his assessment, which calls for a vast expansion of an increasingly unpopular war. One senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the meeting, said, "A lot of assumptions -- and I don't want to say myths, but a lot of assumptions -- were exposed to the light of day."
Among them, according to three senior administration officials who attended the meeting, is McChrystal's contention that the Taliban and al-Qaeda share the same strategic interests and that the return to power of the Taliban would automatically mean a new sanctuary for al-Qaeda.
Leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Taliban government provided much of al-Qaeda's leadership with a safe haven before being toppled by U.S. forces later that year. Since then, some White House officials say, al-Qaeda has not regained its foothold even as the Taliban insurgency has strengthened.
The deliberations over McChrystal's assessment are expected to last several weeks, and officials who participated in Wednesday's meeting say it is too early to discern what direction Obama intends to take.
Although participants described the discussions as fluid, divisions are becoming clearer between those in the administration who want to broaden the U.S. effort, including sending in additional combat forces, and those who want to adopt a narrower anti-terrorism effort focused primarily on al-Qaeda.
Senior White House officials asked some of the sharpest questions, according to participants and others who have been briefed on the meeting, while the uniformed military, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, did not take issue with McChrystal's assessment.
According to White House officials involved in the meeting, Vice President Biden offered some of the more pointed challenges to McChrystal, who attended the session by video link from Kabul. One official said Biden played the role of "skeptic in chief," while other top officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, were muted in their comments.
Clinton has given no public signals about whether she is inclined to side with Biden or with McChrystal. But Clinton often sees eye to eye with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who also has kept his views private. She met with Gates on Tuesday and has cleared her afternoon schedule for Friday to meet with her Afghanistan team.
Biden has argued against increasing the number of U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan, currently scheduled to total 68,000 by the end of the year. He favors preserving the current force levels, stepping up Predator drone strikes on al-Qaeda leaders and increasing training for Afghan forces. Like many congressional Democrats, Biden is concerned that deploying more U.S. troops could be counterproductive, giving the Taliban more fodder to foment public opposition to the foreign occupation.
McChrystal, whom Obama sent to Afghanistan in May after firing his predecessor, is making his case for additional resources publicly. In a speech Thursday at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, McChrystal said that "we must show resolve" and warned that "uncertainty disheartens our allies and emboldens our foes."
Asked whether a more limited counterterrorism effort would succeed in Afghanistan, he said, "The short answer is: no. You have to navigate from where you are, not where you wish to be. A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted strategy."
In the days leading up to the deliberations this week, senior White House officials emphasized what they say have been the administration's achievements against al-Qaeda, underscoring that defeating the terrorist organization, rather than rebuilding Afghanistan, has always been Obama's stated goal.
After pledging in last year's presidential campaign to wind down the war in Iraq and commit more resources to Afghanistan, Obama concluded a policy review in March that, for the first time, considered the instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single problem that demanded a comprehensive solution, including a large increase in civilian aid to both countries.
Several senior Obama advisers argued this week that two significant events since then have changed the calculus on the ground.
The Pakistani government's decision to reinstate Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry as the Supreme Court chief justice -- his removal had been a major source of domestic tension -- and challenge the Taliban insurgency in the Swat Valley has brought more stability to the U.S.-backed administration of President Asif Ali Zardari, White House officials say.
At the same time, the tainted Aug. 20 presidential election in Afghanistan has cast doubt on the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai's administration.
"Eight months ago, if you had asked people which was worse, everybody would have said Pakistan is worse and Afghanistan is in good shape," one senior Obama adviser said. "Today we find out they had an election that wasn't clean, the Taliban is doing qualitatively better than we presumed and Pakistan is doing so much better."
McChrystal's high-profile campaign on behalf of his assessment is forcing the White House to make its decision amid a widening debate on Capitol Hill and across the country. In his 66-page report, McChrystal warned that "failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum" within a year "risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
Republican leaders in Congress have called on Obama to approve McChrystal's request quickly, but one presidential adviser noted: "In eight months, it is impossible to reverse eight years of neglect."
"A lot of decisions were made out of a sense of urgency in the previous administration, and they turned out to be wrong-headed," said another senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy. "Examining the options, testing assumptions, reviewing everything -- we're not talking months, just days and weeks, and it is well worth the time spent."
Correspondent Anthony Faiola in London contributed to this report.