By Michael D. Shear and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
The top U.S. general and the U.S ambassador in Afghanistan have been told to prepare to testify before Congress as early as next week, according to White House and other U.S. officials, giving an indication of how and when President Obama plans to announce his war strategy.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans have yet to be announced, said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry have not been given a date for their appearance before committees that would consider additional war funding requests.
But, the officials said, the two have been told that their testimony would quickly follow Obama's announcement, so that they could offer details and support for the president's strategy for how to proceed with the eight-year-old war. Opinion polls show that most Americans believe it is no longer worth fighting.
On Monday night, Obama met in the White House Situation Room with his senior national security advisers, including Eikenberry and McChrystal, who was expected to join the session by teleconference from Kabul. In an effort to weaken the Taliban insurgency and destroy al-Qaeda, Obama is choosing from several strategic options, all of which call for deploying thousands of additional U.S. troops and would cost tens of billions of dollars a year.
Several leading Democrats have already raised the possibility of a surtax on the wealthiest Americans to help pay for an expanded war effort.
McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has requested 40,000 additional U.S. troops to reverse the Taliban's momentum and to train more quickly Afghan forces. But Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who served in Afghanistan, opposes additional troop deployments until President Hamid Karzai roots out corruption in his administration and takes other steps to strengthen the country. Given their opposing views, their congressional testimony could prove politically delicate.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters Monday that Obama is still seeking information on "not just how we get people there, but what's the strategy for getting them out." He said the subject would be the focus of the Monday evening review session, the last one that has been scheduled.
For much of the fall, Obama has been meeting with his war council to determine a new strategy in Afghanistan, where 68,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed. Now he has 18 weekdays left to announce his decision -- not counting Thanksgiving break -- before he leaves for his Christmas-holiday vacation in Hawaii.
But his schedule for the rest of November and December is filling up with other events and appearances, some of which could create public relations challenges if they happen too close to the presentation of an expanded war effort.
Administration officials have said Obama will not outline his decision until after Thanksgiving, and it appears increasingly probable he will do so early next week. In addition to McChrystal and Eikenberry, senior administration officials whose support for the strategy is essential are preparing to be in town for possible appearances before Congress.
For example, Greek officials announced Monday that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will not be attending next week's Athens meeting of foreign ministers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Clinton missed the last OSCE meeting after breaking her elbow. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also has no announced plans to travel next week.
Obama will probably have to make the announcement early next week because he has scheduled a "jobs summit" at the White House on Dec. 3. The next day he plans to travel to Allentown, Pa., to talk about jobs and the economy.
Obama could push the announcement back another week, but that might create other conflicts.
His schedule is largely open early the week of Dec. 7. But that day, of course, is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and an announcement that day would require another political calculation by the White House over whether that is a symbolically beneficial or inappropriate time for an important wartime speech.
Later in the week of Dec. 7, Obama is to travel to Oslo to accept his Nobel Peace Prize, and it seems unlikely that his advisers would want the echo of a new Afghan policy reverberating through that event.
If Obama needs more time, he could wait until the week of Dec. 14, which at this point also appears open on his schedule. But the health-care debate is sure to be roiling the Senate by then, as lawmakers race to meet the president's call to send him a bill by the end of the year.
Along with the timing of the Afghanistan announcement, it is also not clear how the White House plans to present the plan to the public, although the testimony by McChrystal and Eikenberry before Congress offers some clarity. Options being considered include an Oval Office address to the nation, a speech in front of an audience, or a prime-time news conference.
Staff writers Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Paul Kane and Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.