Obama's Big Decision on Troops in Afghanistan

President Obama has held a series of meetings on troop levels in Afghanistan.

By + More

As President Obama embarks on a review of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan this month, he faces some stark and politically thorny choices. He can send more troops, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces, has asked in a classified memo. This would risk alienating Obama's core Democratic supporters—including Vice President Joe Biden—who have argued that such a move might enmesh America in a quagmire. The White House could alternately deny the troop request, satisfying its base as well as keen critics who are certain to accuse the president of disregarding the advice of his military commanders, at America's peril.

"It's a strategic decision," says a senior defense official involved in Afghanistan policy. "The White House made the choice to expand the war to the degree that it already has" earlier this year when Obama agreed to deploy 21,000more troops. "OK, now you put McChrystal in there. So do you agree with him?"

That is, at heart, the question that Obama faces. And although McChrystal wants more troops—ideally as many as 40,000—he is also presenting the president with other options. "The big concern at the Pentagon is, 'Are you going to get buy-in for everything as McChrystal has laid it out?' " says the official. "Is the desire to conduct a counterinsurgency war the right way to go?"

That approach is troop-heavy, with its priority on protecting the Afghan people. The Pentagon is "all in agreement" with it, the official says. "The case we made for more troops was very coherent and well articulated," adds a U.S. military officer in Kabul. "I believe we're going to get what we ask for."

But others, like Biden, favor a counterterrorism approach focused on seeking out al Qaeda, using such tactics as Predator drone strikes. It is considered the "cheaper option," Pentagon officials say, since it requires fewer troops.

On Capitol Hill, legislators have begun maneuvering in anticipation of a debate. During hearings last week on the state of Iraq, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, asked Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces there, whether he would have "seen the success in Iraq that you've seen now if you did not have the surge?" Odierno answered that the surge "obviously" helped, but he added that outreach to former Sunni insurgents did, too.

Michael Vickers, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, noted that Afghanistan is, in many ways, the more complex war. Insurgents there "receive more funding from external sources than I believe the Iraqi insurgents did," he said. There is, too, "the critical importance of the sanctuary that Afghan insurgents' groups enjoy in Pakistan," he said.

In recent days, a previously reluctant Defense Secretary Robert Gates has signaled a new openness to sending more troops, according to senior defense officials. "I think he is on board," says one. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell noted that some of Gates's concerns had been "mitigated" during discussions with McChrystal. In the White House Situation Room, Gates was "open-minded, undecided, and willing to engage in discussion," Morrell said. These are talks, he added, that will take continue over "at least" the next couple of weeks."