Hours after winning a Nobel Peace Prize, President Barack Obama assembled his war council in the White House basement to discuss the 8-year-old Afghanistan conflict that military commanders are pressing him to escalate.
The president and his top national security advisers huddled for three hours in the Situation Room to hear top military officials make their case for tens of thousands of additional troops to target al-Qaida. The session marked the first time Obama has questioned his inner circle specifically about troop levels needed to right a war that has languished in progress and popularity.
A decision, though, was not in the offing.
"I still think we're probably several weeks away," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters before the meeting began. "I think the president feels like the discussions are going well."
During Friday's meeting, the Obama's team dug into the recommendations from the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, along with other potential options, an administration official said on condition of anonymity, adding that no decisions were made.
Another meeting is scheduled for Wednesday for what could be the final discussions with the broad group before Obama makes his decision.
The focus of Friday's meeting was about what it would take — from the military, from U.S. diplomats and from the government's wallet — for the United States to combat terrorism, the official said.
McChrystal is believed to have presented Obama with a range of options, from adding as few as 10,000 troops to as many as 40,000. The troop buildup is unpopular among some of Obama's fellow Democrats and even among some of the officials he summoned to the secure conference room.
Obama has told top advisers he wants to identify objectives before committing troops or military assets to achieve them. Even his closest advisers say they have no idea where Obama is leaning on a war he inherited but now must execute.
Friday's session was the fourth of at least five with Obama and more than a dozen key administration officials, including top diplomats and military brass. Before Friday, the lengthy discussions involving Afghanistan and Pakistan stuck to strategy formulation.
Focus on al-Qaida
Those talks have sharpened the mission's focus to fighting al-Qaida above all other goals and downgraded the emphasis on defeating the Taliban, a senior administration official who participated in the discussions said Thursday. The official was authorized to talk to The Associated Press but not to be identified, because the discussions were private.
Under the evolving strategy, the official said, the U.S. would fight only to keep the Taliban from retaking control of Afghanistan's central government — something it is now far from being capable of — and from turning the country back into the sanctuary for al-Qaida that it was before the 2001 invasion ousted the regime.
The official said Obama will determine how many more U.S. troops to deploy to Afghanistan based only on keeping al-Qaida at bay.
War support dropping
Obama's renewed focus on defeating al-Qaida — the same objective he outlined when he first announced a new Afghanistan strategy in March — has many implications for the debate over a war that the public is souring on. According to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, public support for the war has dropped to 40 percent from 44 percent in July.
National security adviser James Jones has said that according to maximum estimates, al-Qaida has fewer than 100 fighters operating in Afghanistan without any bases or ability to launch attacks on the West. Instead, the U.S. fight in Afghanistan is against the Taliban, now increasingly defined by the Obama team as distinct from al-Qaida. While still dangerous, the Taliban are seen as indigenous with almost entirely local and territorial aims and far less of a threat to the U.S.
A focus on al-Qaida is the driving force behind an approach being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as an alternative to the McChrystal recommendation for a fuller counterinsurgency effort inside Afghanistan.
Biden has argued for keeping the American force there around the 68,000 already authorized, which includes the 21,000 extra troops Obama ordered earlier this year. The vice president proposes significantly increasing the use of unmanned Predator drones and special forces for the kind of surgical anti-terrorist strikes that have been successful in Pakistan and Somalia.