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