By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009; A01
Congressional leaders left a rare bipartisan meeting with President Obama on Tuesday divided over what strategy the administration should adopt to fight an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan and how quickly it must do so to protect U.S. forces already on the ground.
Obama called congressional leaders to the White House at a key moment in his Afghanistan policy review, which will determine whether the United States pushes deeper into a war that military officials have warned will probably be won or lost over the next 12 months.
Congress must approve any additional resources that Obama would need if he accepts the recommendations of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, who favors a broad expansion of the effort on the battlefield and the push to build a stable national government. But much of the president's party is resisting calls for more combat troops after eight years of war, forcing him to seek support from Republicans who favor McChrystal's strategy.
"I think a lot of senators and congressmen need to ask themselves how much money they are willing to put on the table, for how long and for what strategy," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who attended Tuesday's meeting. "This is a tough set of interrelated questions. And I think there have been some unfortunate straw men set up."
Obama told congressional leaders that he is not contemplating reducing troop levels in the near term under any scenario, according to several participants, and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated Tuesday that withdrawing from Afghanistan is "not an option." A complete U.S. troop withdrawal is one of the straw men to which Kerry -- and the president, in the meeting -- referred.
The partisan split evident after the meeting, which 30 lawmakers attended, illustrated the political challenge Obama faces in Congress over this conflict. Opinion polls show that only a minority of Americans believe the battle is worth fighting, and much of that opposition is rooted in the Democratic Party.
Although lawmakers sought after the meeting to express bipartisan support for Obama as he makes the most far-reaching foreign policy decision of his tenure, Democrats questioned whether the Afghan government remains a viable political partner after the flawed Aug. 20 presidential election, and Republicans challenged the administration's determination to defeat the Taliban.
In recent weeks, Obama has made clear that defeating al-Qaeda is the goal of his policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the group's leadership is believed to be operating in the largely ungoverned tribal areas. His national security team will assemble Wednesday at the White House for a meeting focused on Pakistan, whose nuclear-armed government has shown more willingness recently to take on the Taliban within its borders.
In a speech at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean earlier Tuesday, Obama said: "We will target al-Qaeda wherever they take root. We will not yield in our pursuit, and we are developing the capacity and the cooperation to deny a safe haven to any who threaten America and its allies."
The president completed an initial Afghan strategy review in March by deploying 21,000 additional troops to the country. By the end of the year, 68,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines are scheduled to be on the ground there.
Obama also named McChrystal as the commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, now numbering about 100,000. In his recent assessment of the war, McChrystal said the next 12 months would probably determine whether U.S. and NATO forces could regain the initiative from the Taliban. Although he has yet to submit a specific request, he is expected soon to ask for as many as 40,000 more troops.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) predicted that Obama's review would last "weeks, not months." But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, "It's pretty clear that time is not on our side," and he recommended that Obama give "great weight" to recommendations by McChrystal and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the regional commander.
"The president has made clear that no one has a greater sense of urgency about this than he does, and he underscored that in the meeting," said a senior administration official who participated in the session and discussed it on the condition of anonymity. "But that's not going to get in the way of the due diligence that he needs to do. The urgency is not to make a decision, but to make the right decision."
According to participants, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked whether the administration believed that a return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan would translate into a new sanctuary for al-Qaeda, as the country was before the 2001 U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban government.
Senior White House officials raised the same question last week in the first of several meetings planned to discuss McChrystal's assessment. Those officials are building a case internally for a narrower counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan that would maintain roughly the current troop level and rely on expedited training of Afghan troops, stepped-up Predator drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives and support for Pakistan's government in its fight against the Taliban.
"We all know that if the Taliban comes back, then al-Qaeda will come back," McCain said after the meeting Tuesday.
McCain said that Iraq, not Vietnam, should be the model for how to proceed in Afghanistan. He said "half-measures" would fail in Afghanistan as they did in Iraq, until Petraeus argued successfully for additional combat forces and a counterinsurgency strategy. Petraeus has endorsed McChrystal's plan.
But Democratic leaders raised questions that may help determine what course Obama will choose. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) asked whether "we have an able partner in President [Hamid] Karzai." Karzai's legitimacy is important because McChrystal's strategy relies in part on a national government that is more popular than the Taliban.
"There are areas that must be addressed as this decision" is made, Pelosi said. "Whether we agree with it or vote for it remains to be seen, depending on what the president puts forward."