Obama Begins Busy AfPak Decision-Making Week

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009; 4:58 PM

President Obama gave a brief nod to health care reform Monday with a Rose Garden rally for doctors. But he'll spend most of his week on the most potentially far-reaching foreign policy decision of his administration: what to do in Afghanistan.

Late Monday afternoon, Obama is scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who earlier in the day appeared to tacitly rebuke Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal when he said that military advice should remain "private."

McChrystal, the commander of the roughly 100,000 U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, has carried out a very public campaign on behalf of his stark assessment of the war, which calls for a new military strategy and vastly more resources to carry it out.

The public advocacy, including a blunt speech in London last week during which he rejected more modest options being considered within the White House, has forced Obama and his advisers to discuss a pivotal policy review more publicly than they had wanted.

The internal review continues with meetings scheduled for Wednesday and Friday at the White House, where Obama will meet with senior national security advisers and military leaders.

During last week's three-hour review session, senior White House officials challenged a number of McChrystal's assumptions about the timing and goals of the war effort. Some within the administration are considering -- and beginning to make the case for -- a narrower anti-terrorism policy in Afghanistan rather than the expansive counter-insurgency campaign that the uniformed military favors.

The more modest plan would maintain roughly the same number of combat troops in the near term, while speeding up the training of Afghan forces, intensifying Predator drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives, and supporting the nuclear-armed Pakistan government in its fight against he Taliban.

McChrystal has called such a strategy "sort-sighted," arguing that it would result in a weak Afghan state and the restoration of the kind of al-Qaeda sanctuary that existed before Sept. 11, 2001.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said during Monday's regular briefing for reporters that withdrawing from Afghanistan is "not an option," even though the flawed Aug. 20 presidential election there has left the administration with an uncertain political partner to help carry to its strategy.

Regarding Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, Gibbs said Obama "relies greatly on his viewpoints." He said Gates provides "unvarnished advice that doesn't have a political agenda."

In the past, Gates has expressed skepticism that additional U.S. combat forces are the solution to the worsening -- and increasingly unpopular -- war in Afghanistan. It is unclear where he stands in the current review, although his opinion will likely carry significant weight with Obama.

Asked if McChrystal's public lobbying is complicating the review process, Gibbs said, "I don't think it detracts from it." A day earlier, Obama's National Security Adviser James L. Jones, a retired four-star general, said "military advice should come up through the chain of command."

On Tuesday, Obama is scheduled to meet at the White House with Congressional leaders from both parties. Gibbs said Obama intends to use the session to provide House and Senate leaders with an update on how the policy review process is going.

Obama's faces an awkward dynamic in Congress over his Afghanistan policy.

Republicans, so far, have been the strongest advocates for an expanded war effort. Democrats, meanwhile, appear reluctant to dispatch additional combat forces, which McChrystal is expected to request in the weeks ahead.

If Obama agrees to additional troops, he may have to rely on opposition support in Congress to secure the funding at a time when many Republicans are bitterly fighting his domestic agenda.

Since taking office, Obama has deployed an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. By the end of the year, 68,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines are scheduled to be on the ground there.

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