By Anne E. Kornblut and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 15, 2009
President Obama, convening his fifth war council meeting in as many weeks, pressed his senior national security advisers Wednesday on the political situation in Afghanistan and the effort to train the country's security forces, officials said.
Allegations of fraud in the Afghan presidential election over the summer have raised questions about the legitimacy of Hamid Karzai's government, complicating U.S. efforts to partner with him. Meanwhile, the country's security forces are seen as ill-equipped to confront an insurgency that is gaining strength.
Such factors are figuring prominently in the debate over the Obama administration's strategy in Afghanistan, official say. Although the discussions also include making a decision on whether to deploy tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops, an administration official said the president was "very focused on the complexity of the situation" Wednesday -- looking past the military aspect of the equation and toward the civilian effort.
Another official said the focus on the civilian effort grew out of a sense that the United States needs to better cultivate Afghan leaders and institutions.
"We've been at war eight years, and we realize now we're starting from scratch because very little work has been done building a credible Afghan partner," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.
Obama has said he will make a decision on U.S. troop levels in the coming weeks, and White House officials said that timetable is still in effect, with another war council session scheduled for next week.
But in Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced Wednesday that he would send an additional 500 troops to Afghanistan -- triggering media reports there that U.S. allies had reached a preliminary conclusion about boosting troop levels.
Brown said he would deploy the additional troops only if NATO partners also send extra forces. The British military contingent in Afghanistan, which would reach 9,500 if the additional troops are deployed, is the second largest of the forces from the 41 nations that have contributed troops to the war effort.
In remarks before the House of Commons, the British prime minister suggested that his move to send additional combat troops is in line with the consensus emerging from Obama's policy review.
"I believe the decision we are announcing is consistent with what the Americans will decide," said Brown, who met last month with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the overall commander for the region.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs denied a BBC report that Obama has settled on a "substantial increase" of U.S. forces -- up to an additional 45,000 -- that could be announced as soon as next week.
"The president has not made a decision, and when he does, I think that you can assume that the BBC will not be the first outlet for such a decision," Gibbs said. Nonetheless, he added that the British troop increase reflected a concerted effort among the administration and its partners.
"Obviously, throughout this process, we have been coordinating our review with our allies," Gibbs said.
Although Obama's top advisers disagree over whether to adopt a counterterrorism strategy or a counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan, they have generally reached a consensus on other matters, officials said. That consensus emphasizes the importance of training Afghan security and police forces, as well as improving efforts to build effective government institutions.
The administration is also trying to bolster the government in neighboring Pakistan. Obama is expected to sign a bill this week that will provide the country with $7.5 billion over five years. A signing ceremony scheduled for Wednesday was postponed.
On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, criticized the administration for not settling quickly on a strategy in the region, saying the long review process has left U.S. forces "in limbo." He added that the strategy is "in a state of drift and lacking direction."
Republicans, who could prove to be Obama's strongest allies if he decides to increase troop levels, are keeping close watch on the review process amid reports that dissenters, led by Vice President Biden, would prefer to limit the troop increase and target terrorists rather than Taliban insurgents.
"I'm worried that we're going to see 'new' analysis that justifies a more limited war strategy on the basis that we can now tolerate" the Taliban, McKeon said. "We all know the perils of driving intelligence analysis to fit preferred policy outcomes."
During the policy review, Obama officials have highlighted what they have called promising signs that Pakistan's U.S.-backed military has shown greater willingness in recent months to take on the Taliban.
The Pakistani military has been stepping up preparations in recent days to take the fight into South Waziristan, a tribal area along the Afghan border thought to be a sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders.
On Wednesday, Pakistani warplanes bombed several sites in the mountainous region, from where an estimated 200,000 residents have fled since August. The bombing runs reportedly killed at least eight people and are thought to be a precursor to a ground offensive by Pakistan's army.