President Obama must decide in the coming weeks whether a greater investment of troops and resources in Afghanistan is worth the political risk if Americans do not soon perceive better results on the ground.
Obama's national security team will debate recommendations from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for a continuation, with some adjustments, of the aggressive security and nation-building effort the administration has put in place. McChrystal has provided a range of options for expansion, each offering the possibility of a better eventual outcome.
"Whenever you have to have a debate" over how much more investment may be needed, "you're implicitly saying you're failing," said Michael O'Hanlon, senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But if you're failing, how do you give people hope that you will succeed?"
With Taliban insurgents gaining ground and U.S. combat deaths increasing, an unusual and still small mix of liberal Democrats and conservative pundits has called for Obama to cut U.S. losses in Afghanistan and concentrate more directly on his stated objective of destroying al-Qaeda, which is based in neighboring Pakistan.
The more indirect goals of defeating the Taliban and preventing Afghanistan from ever again serving as an operational base for global terrorists, some argue, are distractions that are both too costly and too difficult. Although the administration has said it needs 12 to 18 months to show that its strategy is working, recent opinion polls indicate that a growing number of Americans agree that the ground war may not be worth fighting.
"It is time we discuss a flexible timetable for withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan," Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) said in a statement issued late last month. The conservative writer George Will, in a widely discussed column last week, called for a substantial reduction in U.S. troops.
Former Republican senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who accompanied Obama on a trip to Iraq during last year's political campaign, publicly advised Obama last week to listen to recordings of conversations that President Lyndon B. Johnson had with then-Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) about Vietnam. Obama, Hagel said, should focus on "those in which LBJ told Russell that we would not win in Vietnam but that he did not want to pull out and be the first American president to lose a war."
Asked whether the administration would consider reversing its strategy in the direction of withdrawal, a senior official said: "The president's view is that there are a lot of good ideas out there and we should hear them all. When you come down to the question of governance, we've seen what happens when one viewpoint is not particularly debated or challenged or reviewed or measured."
The reference is to the administration of George W. Bush, in which questions raised internally about the invasion of Iraq and detention policies for terrorism suspects were discouraged and quickly discounted.
"I don't anticipate that the briefing books for the principals on these debates over the next weeks and months will be filled with submissions from opinion columnists," the senior official said. "I do anticipate they will be filled with vigorous discussion . . . of how successful we've been to date."
But this official and others, who agreed to speak about the upcoming national security discussions on the condition of anonymity, gave no indication that withdrawal would be seriously considered. "There's not a lot of rethinking that the strategy we have pretty much worked on to go forward with needs some drastic or dramatic revision," a second official said.
"We can't deny that they've had their successes," the second official said of the Taliban. But McChrystal's recommendations are "all in the scope of how do you refine your tactics, not your strategy."
The administration has compiled a list of about 50 measurements to use in gauging progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to be given to lawmakers by late September.
Congress mandated the measurements, which Obama promised in his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy announcement in March, when it approved a supplemental war spending bill. He has also pledged to end the Bush administration's practice of funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with such emergency measures outside the regular defense budget.
The pending 2010 budget legislation for the first time requests more money for Afghanistan-Pakistan operations than for Operation Iraqi Freedom -- $68 billion compared with $61 billion. Administration officials said they expected congressional debate on the larger Defense Department appropriation of more than half a trillion dollars to focus on Afghanistan spending.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee who spent the weekend in Afghanistan with Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), told the Providence Journal last week that he anticipated "a very vigorous debate" over the way forward. Reed, the Rhode Island paper reported, said he thinks that U.S. strategy is on the right track but that there is an urgent need for more Afghan forces.
'A war of necessity'
Even before receiving McChrystal's report, Obama offered a prelude to the public case he is likely to make. "There will be more difficult days ahead," he said in a mid-August speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "The insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight, and we won't defeat it overnight. This will not be quick nor easy. But we must never forget: This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.
"Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again," Obama said. "If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people."
Obama's strategy is based on classic counterinsurgency principles designed to win over Afghans while fighting the Taliban. It includes a civilian "surge" of hundreds of new diplomatic, economic, agricultural and legal specialists this year to help develop the Afghan economy and government and the addition of 21,000 troops, bringing the total U.S. force to 68,000 by the end of this year. When it was initially discussed during Obama's first two months in office, Vice President Biden reportedly argued that the focus should be limited to counterterrorism -- direct attacks on al-Qaeda sanctuaries along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Although that discussion is ongoing in some military and administration circles, a senior defense official said, there is widespread recognition that falling back to pure counterterrorism "just can't be done" because of the stakes involved and the investment already made.
McChrystal's report, which is not yet public, is known to outline the need for a massive increase in Afghanistan's security forces, far beyond existing plans to double them. That will require more U.S. and NATO troops to train and mentor them. Senior defense officials said he has also proposed increasing intelligence and other assets and changing the geographic deployment of combat troops to increase their presence in the southern city of Kandahar, and in northern and western areas where the Taliban has shown new strength. A formal request for resources will follow the report, depending on which of McChrystal's options Obama accepts.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has long expressed concern about an oversize American military "footprint" in Afghanistan, indicated last week that he was open to increased forces, saying he took seriously McChrystal's point that U.S. troops could improve interaction with Afghans as partners and "mitigate" the risk that they would come to be seen as enemy occupiers.