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White House Split on Second Afghan Troop Surge

by Jenny Booth

President Obama is confronting a split among his closest advisers on Afghanistan, with military commanders solidly behind the request for additional troops but other key figures in the administration divided.

In this photo released by the White House, President Barack Obama holds a review on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009, in Washington. (AP Photo/The White House, Pete Souza) Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, and Richard Holbrooke, the special Afghan and Pakistan envoy, appear to be leaning toward supporting a troop increase, a White House official revealed after a strategy meeting yesterday.

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, and General James Jones, Mr Obama's national security adviser, appeared to be less supportive, the official said.

Joe Biden, the US Vice President who attended the meeting, has been reluctant to support a troop increase, preferring to step up the US's controversial airborne campaign to fire missiles at al-Qaeda fighters sheltering in Pakistan. Unmanned drone attacks save US troops from harm's way but have taken a heavy toll in civilian lives.

The fault lines within the administration emerged last night as Mr Obama pressed key members of his national security team for their views during an intense, three-hour session in a packed White House Situation Room.

The splits reflect wider divisions in the Democratic party and an American people grown weary of the 8-year-old conflict.

Mr Obama is under pressure to make a quick decision on whether to approve the change of strategy recommended by top general Stanley McChrystal, switching from attacking the Taleban to protecting the Afghan civilian population and efforts to build up Afghan security forces.

In a secret report to the Pentagon, leaked last week, Gen McChrystal warns that US troops are losing ground against the Taleban and that within a year the war may be unwinnable.

But the strategy would involve sending in up to 40,000 more US troops and army trainers, in addition to the current US force of 68,000 - a policy Mr Obama fears he may fail to get through Congress. Military figures fret that he is seeking to delay a decision.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General David Petraeus, the top commander for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both support Gen McChrystal's strategy, said Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon press secretary.

Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, is on the fence, the spokesman said. Mr Gates has had General McChrystal's exact request for more troop numbers on his desk since late last week, but has yet to pass it on to the White House.

Last night's meeting - the second of at least five Mr Obama has planned as he reviews his Afghanistan strategy - didn't include specific discussions of troop levels.

At its conclusion, Mr Obama reminded the crowd that he hadn't reached a decision and that his war council should return twice next week with more details and ideas, the official said.

White House officials say it may take weeks more before the president decides whether to overhaul US strategy in Afghanistan or send more troops.

Afterwards, General Jones told senators in a classified briefing that the administration's evolving Afghanistan strategy depends in large part on the outcome of the disputed Afghan election. No result is expected for weeks, as the country's electoral complaints commission sifts through a mountain of allegations of vote fraud by President Karzai.

"It's not just the election but the reaction to the election that we'll be watching for," said Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island.

Key Democrats in Congress have begun voicing concern about the US-led effort in Afghanistan, questioning whether a further commitment of blood and treasure is wise or necessary. The most vocal support for continuing or even expanding the conflict comes from Republicans.

Support for the war has fallen off sharply among Americans, with just more than half now saying the conflict is not worth the fight.

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