Image: Marine in Afghanistan
Brennan Linsley  /  AP
A U.S. Marine patrols in the Nawa district of Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, on Saturday. President Barack Obama is weighing sending more soldiers.
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updated 9/26/2009 7:07:17 PM ET 2009-09-26T23:07:17

As President Obama weighs sending more troops to Afghanistan, one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency, he has discovered that the military is not monolithic in support of the plan and that some of the civilian advisers he respects most have deep reservations.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s troop request, which was submitted to the Pentagon on Friday, has reignited a longstanding debate within the military about the virtues of the counterinsurgency strategy popularized by Gen. David H. Petraeus in Iraq and now embraced by General McChrystal, the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

General McChrystal is expected to ask for as many as 40,000 additional troops for the eight-year-old war, a number that has generated concern among top officers like Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, who worry about the capacity to provide more soldiers at a time of stress on the force, officials said.

While Mr. Obama is hearing from more hawkish voices, including those of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, some outside advisers relied on by Mr. Obama have voiced doubts.

Decision with 'huge consequences'
Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a retired four-star Army general, visited Mr. Obama in the Oval Office this month and expressed skepticism that more troops would guarantee success, according to people briefed on the discussion. Mr. Powell reminded the president of his longstanding view that military missions should be clearly defined.

Mr. Powell is one of the three people, with Senator John F. Kerry and Senator Jack Reed, considered by White House aides to be most influential in this current debate. All have expressed varying degrees of doubt about the prospect of sending more forces to Afghanistan.

Mr. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has warned of repeating the mistakes of Vietnam, where he served, and has floated the idea of a more limited counterterrorist mission. Mr. Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and an Army veteran, has not ruled out supporting more troops but said “the burden of proof” was on commanders to justify it.

“The one thing that’s very clear is this is the decision that will have huge consequences,” Mr. Reed said in an interview. “It has to be made carefully.”

In the West Wing, beyond Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has advocated an alternative strategy to the troop buildup, other presidential advisers sound dubious about more troops, including Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, and Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, according to people who have spoken with them.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has not endorsed General McChrystal’s request yet, viewing the situation as “complicated,” said one person who has spoken with him. But Mr. Gates, who will be an influential voice in Mr. Obama’s decision, has also left open the door for more troops and warned of the consequences of failure in Afghanistan.

A war of necessity
Although Mr. Obama has called Afghanistan a war of necessity, he has left members of both parties uncertain about the degree of his commitment to a large and sustained military presence. Even some advisers said they thought Mr. Obama’s support for the war as a senator and presidential candidate was at least partly a way of contrasting it with what he saw as a reckless war in Iraq.

His decision to send 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan early this year, which will bring the number of American troops there to 68,000 this fall, was made hurriedly within weeks of coming into office to stanch the tactical erosion on the ground and provide security during Afghan elections.

Weighing options
But with those elections now marred by fraud allegations, the latest troop request is forcing Mr. Obama to decide whether he wants to fully engage in Afghanistan for the rest of his term or make a dramatic change of course. Where this will lead Mr. Obama remains uncertain. With the liberal base of his party increasingly vocal in its opposition to the war, Mr. Obama may want to show that he has duly considered all sides before making up his mind.

But some advisers said the varying views reflected the complicated nature of the debate in which many key players are not clearly defined in pro or con camps. The troop request follows the strategy unveiled by Mr. Obama in March to focus more on protecting the Afghan population, building infrastructure and improving governance, rather than just hunting the Taliban.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has endorsed the idea of more troops and will be at the table representing the military. But other officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and say they admire General McChrystal nonetheless have privately expressed doubt that additional troops will make a difference.

“If a request for more forces comes to the Army, we’ll have to assess what that will do in terms of stress on the force,” said a Army official, who asked not to be identified speaking before General McChrystal’s troop request became public.

General Casey, whose institutional role as Army chief is to protect his force, has a goal to increase by 2012 a soldier’s time at home, from the current one year for every year of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan to two years at home for every year served. At a news conference in Nevada this month, General Casey said that “if there is an increase of forces in Afghanistan, then that could slow that down.”

Advisers who have Mr. Obama’s ear have raised other questions. Mr. Powell went to see Mr. Obama for other reasons, but his remarks on Afghanistan have been cited in the White House since then. “The question the president has to answer is, ‘What will more troops do?’ ” Mr. Powell told reporters before a speech in California last week. “You have to not just add troops. You need a clear definition of your mission and then you can determine whether you need more troops or other resources.”

In an interview, Senator Kerry, who met with Admiral Mullen last week, said that he had not made up his mind about the troop buildup but “we have to ask some very tough questions about that, questioning the underlying assumptions.” In Vietnam, he said, “the underlying assumptions were flawed, and the number of troops weren’t going to make a difference.”

Senator Reed, who met with Mr. Biden, was more measured, but said the president needed to look at the capacity of Afghan forces and the prospects of reconciliation with moderate Taliban members. “You have to evaluate several options very vigorously — one to give you confidence in the decision and two, because you want to make sure you have the best operational plan to carry out the strategy,” he said.

The article, "Afghanistan Troop Request Splits Advisers to Obama," first appeared in the New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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