Correction to This Article
This article misstated the location of President Obama's Oct. 30 meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The meeting was at the White House, not the Pentagon.

During marathon review of Afghanistan strategy, Obama held out for faster troop surge

By Anne E. Kornblut, Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 6, 2009

President Obama, seated at the head of a conference table strewn with papers in the White House Situation Room, stared at charts showing various options for sending additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan.

He and his top national security advisers had been debating the way forward for two full months. On this day, Nov. 11, the president scanned the choices with a trace of irritation. At a meeting more than two weeks earlier, he had asked for a plan to deploy and pull out troops quickly -- a "surge" similar to the one that his Republican predecessor had executed in Iraq, but with a fixed date to begin withdrawals.

What was in front of Obama -- scenarios in which it took too long to get in and too long to get out -- was not what he wanted.

"I don't know how we can describe this as a surge," he said in a tone that others around the table registered as annoyance. "I'm usually more sedate than this," Obama acknowledged, according to a senior adviser who read from notes he took at the meeting.

By the time Obama returned 10 days later from a trip to Asia, military officials had come up with plans to deploy troops much more rapidly than originally proposed by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. The new plans also called for fewer U.S. troops than McChrystal had requested and specified that they would begin to come home by July 2011, starting a glide path toward ending a war that, according to opinion polls, only a minority of Americans think is worth fighting.

As described in interviews by more than a dozen senior administration and military officials who took part in the strategy review, the final number of 30,000 more American troops and the timing of their deployment were among the last policy elements to be finalized. Obama's new strategy, which he announced in an address to the nation last week from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., would push the total U.S. military force in Afghanistan to about 100,000 by mid-2010 and make new demands on America's NATO and other foreign partners.

After one revelatory discussion about the mission's goals, administration officials changed their chief objective from trying to eliminate the Taliban to making sure insurgents could no longer threaten the Afghan government's survival. The new strategy would include a closer relationship with Pakistan, along with a warning that the United States would step up its action against al-Qaeda camps in that country if the Pakistanis did not do it themselves.

In 25 hours of meetings that the president led over three months, participants reviewed in detail how complicated the Afghanistan conflict had become. The sessions were fluid, influenced by the ghosts of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, as well as the imperatives of a soaring budget deficit.

"What was interesting was the metamorphosis," said national security adviser James L. Jones, the only senior official who agreed to discuss the deliberations on the record. "I dare say that none of us ended up where we started."

Jones did not reveal his own position. But among a wide range of opinions as the process began, Vice President Biden was known to oppose a major troop buildup, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was publicly leery, and some of Obama's civilian advisers were privately opposed. When the president polled them on his final decision two days before it was announced, all endorsed it.

The new strategy allows the military to emphasize how much of McChrystal's vision the president endorsed and some of Obama's civilian advisers to say they conducted a wholesale redrawing of the approach to Afghanistan. For Obama, the immersion in the conflict, and in defining how the United States will fight it, makes a long and unpopular war his own.

Basic reality

Obama and his war council gathered in the Situation Room for the first of what would be nine official review sessions on a crisp Sunday in the second week of September. All of those in the room were familiar with McChrystal's classified 66-page assessment of "serious and deteriorating" conditions in Afghanistan, which made clear that "we were starting from zero after eight years of war," a civilian adviser said.

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