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In Afghanistan speech, Obama will outline both escalation and exit

The White House is bracing for a tough sell of President Barack Obama's long-awaited decision on whether to commit tens of thousands of new U.S. forces to the stalemated war in Afghanistan. (Nov. 24)

Obama's advisers say he is likely to specify what the Karzai government must accomplish in the months ahead to justify the additional troops, who would be dispatched in stages over the next year.

The phased deployment would allow Obama to evaluate military gains and Karzai's progress in strengthening the Afghan government. White House advisers say Obama is looking for "off ramps" that would allow him to adopt a strategy more narrowly focused on al-Qaeda if the one he chooses is not showing results.

"If you don't define your goals in a way that's achievable in the short term, you'll have another huge challenge explaining why you're leaving without having achieved them," said a senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations about the policy and its presentation. "The goal, I don't believe, will be an Afghanistan free of the Taliban; it will not be an Afghanistan where the government is in control of the entire geography of the country. It has to be a goal we can reach, and that's what you're going to hear."

Headed to the Hill

Obama's speech will be followed quickly by congressional testimony from several military and civilian officials whose support for the plan is central. McChrystal and the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl W. Eikenberry, have been told to prepare to testify as early as next week before key committees that would consider any additional war funding.

McChrystal and Eikenberry, a retired general who served in Afghanistan, are at odds over the war strategy, with the ambassador opposing new troops until Karzai moves against corruption in his government and takes steps to strengthen the state.

Congressional Republicans are the chief advocates for sending additional troops to Afghanistan and have been pushing Obama to quickly accept McChrystal's full 40,000-troop request.

But cost is becoming a primary concern on Capitol Hill. Congressional Democrats, in particular, have warned in recent days that the projected price tag of a new troop deployment could threaten Obama's domestic agenda amid growing public unease over the widening federal budget deficit.

Some Democrats who oppose sending additional troops to Afghanistan have raised the possibility of new taxes to pay for the war. In a conference call Tuesday with economists, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said House Democrats would have trouble approving a proposal for additional troops because of the costs and the concerns over its long-term national security implications.

"Let me say that there is serious unrest in our caucus," said Pelosi, who visited Obama at the White House later in the day.

White House Budget Director Peter Orszag attended the final war strategy meeting Monday night at the White House, and Obama is expected to address the costs in his speech next week.

"No one has any illusion that this is the campaign, that you can just turn this thing around with a speech," a senior administration official said. "A lot of this strategy depends on things we can't control -- the Afghan government, the Taliban, the role of Pakistan. This is one of those issues that defines the extent and the limits of the president's power."

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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