WASHINGTON — With the military and Republicans publicly pressuring him to send more troops to Afghanistan soon and his own administration now deeply divided about how to proceed there, the eight-year war against al Qaida and the Taliban has become an increasingly urgent policy and political dilemma for President Barack Obama.
He can escalate an unpopular and open-ended war and risk a backlash from his liberal base or refuse his commanders and risk being blamed for a military loss that could tar him and his party as weak on national security.
Obama's decision could be a defining moment of his presidency, and it will reveal much about how he leads. Friends and enemies around the world will be watching — and judging — whether he's firmly in charge or whether he instinctively seeks some safe middle ground.
"This is tough for Democrats. They own this war. They own what happens from here on out. This is a bit of a mess for them all the way around," said Juan Carlos Zarate, a senior adviser at Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former official in the Bush and Clinton administrations.
In interviews with McClatchy last week, military officials and other advocates of escalation expressed their frustration at what they consider "dithering" from the White House. Then, while Obama indicated in television interviews Sunday that he isn't ready to consider whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, someone gave The Washington Post a classified Pentagon report arguing that more troops are necessary to prevent defeat.
The White House insisted anew Monday that the president won't be stampeded into a quick decision on more troops, saying that he first wants to make sure there's a sound strategy in place to secure Afghanistan and make certain that it can't be used as a haven for al Qaida terrorists, as it was before 2001.
His hesitation reflects deep divisions within his own administration and deep uncertainty about whether, even with tens of thousands more troops, the U.S. can succeed in Afghanistan without a less corrupt and legitimately elected Afghan government, greater cooperation from neighboring Pakistan and more time and money than the American public and the Congress may be willing to commit.
Opponents of escalation, led by Vice President Joe Biden and his national security adviser, Antony Blinken; Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon; and deputy secretaries of state Jacob Lew and Jim Steinberg, fear that Afghanistan is a quagmire that will further undermine the administration's domestic political agenda and hurt the Democrats in next year's congressional elections.
The Pentagon itself is sharply divided over what to do, said several defense officials who weren't authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity, with much, but not all, of the uniformed military lined up behind Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. McChrystal wrote the leaked memo, but top policy advisers such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy oppose his plan. Some senior officers also are concerned that sending more troops to Afghanistan would add to the already severe strains on an Army and Marine Corps from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Opponents of a buildup contend that al Qaida, which they note is based in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan, could be neutralized by having U.S. special forces standing by and ready to attack bin Laden's followers once actionable intelligence on their locations is acquired.
This group "wants to find an area where you can pay off enough warlords to provide you with security and then launch from there," another defense official said, requesting anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. Meantime, he said, this group would continue building up and training Afghan security forces.
That alternative, however, would require more U.S. troops to train Afghan forces.
McChrystal and other proponents of committing more troops argue, as his memo does, that success in Afghanistan is "still achievable" but without more U.S. troops soon, the war "will likely result in failure."
The internal debate behind closed doors comes as the American people increasingly oppose the war. In one recent poll for CNN, 58 percent said they opposed the war, while 39 percent favored it. The poll was conducted Sept 11-13.
They also don't much like the idea of sending more troops. A McClatchy-Ipsos poll at the end of August found 56 percent of Americans opposed to sending more troops, while 35 percent favored it.
Not surprisingly, many Democrats in Congress oppose sending more troops. Many of them will face re-election next year.
"It would be a major mistake to increase troop levels — we're getting sucked into something we'll never be able to get out of," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., said it would be a waste of manpower to send more troops to Afghanistan. "There's no military solution to Afghanistan," she said.
Other Democrats want to wait for Obama to take the lead rather than risk splitting with their leader over a controversial war in the first year of his presidency.
"Until the president makes a decision on this, I think we're really jumping way ahead of ourselves to find out what we need in Afghanistan," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Republicans are urging Obama to give McChrystal what he wants — and threatening to lambaste Obama if he backs down.
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, his party's leader in the House of Representatives, noted that Obama in March endorsed the idea of a strong counterinsurgency strategy to secure Afghanistan.
"I am deeply troubled, however, by reports that the White House is delaying action on the general's request for more troops . . . . It's time for the president to clarify where he stands on the strategy he has articulated, because the longer we wait, the more we put our troops at risk."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky echoed Boehner in calling for Obama to give McChrystal what he asks: "Anything less would confirm al Qaida's view that America lacks the strength and the resolve to endure a long war."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that Obama refuses to be rushed into a decision and that he won't order more troops unless a clear strategy demands that.
"The president obviously has seen General McChrystal's report and has had a chance to look at it and is in the process of, with his national security team and those at the Pentagon, working through some of the strategic assessments that the president thinks need to be evaluated," Gibbs said.
Gibbs refused to say whether that might include scaling back the Afghanistan mission to a strategy focused more narrowly on al Qaida leaders.
"The president is going to focus on getting the strategy right," Gibbs said, "and I'm not going to go through what options he may or may not have."
There are currently 65,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. There are expected to be 68,000 by November with the arrival of the last of the 17,700 troops and 4,000 trainers Obama ordered in the spring. There are an additional 39,000 NATO troops.
(William Douglas and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)
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