WASHINGTON - With top commanders and congressional Republicans pushing for more troops, President Barack Obama met Wednesday with leading members of his national security team to hash out a response to Gen. Stanley McChrystal's report on the Afghanistan war and his request for more U.S. forces to save the mission.
When he installed McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan this year, Obama ordered him to write an assessment of the conflict. The dire answer came back in September, declaring the United States would fail to meet its objectives of causing irreparable damage to Taliban militants and their al-Qaida allies if the administration did not increase American forces significantly.
Obama has taken a go-slow approach on the McChrystal report. White House officials say it may take weeks before the president decides whether to overhaul the U.S. strategy or send more troops.
One faction in the administration, which includes the top three military commanders overseeing the war, wants to accept McChrystal's recommendations. Others favour a new strategy of using Special Forces and unmanned drone aircraft for tactical strikes on the Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, which would require much more U.S. action in Pakistan but fewer troops.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates "has clearly been a strong proponent of counterinsurgency" organized by McChrystal, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said on Wednesday. "But he wants to have a thorough discussion with the president and the rest of the national security team" about whether that remains the best strategy for crushing the militant forces.
While the Pentagon has so far locked away specifics of McChrystal's troop request, he is widely believed to want to add between 30,000 and 40,000 to the current force of 68,000. Specific troop levels were not expected to be a focus of Wednesday's meeting.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the hourslong meeting was the second in a series of five in which officials were thrashing out U.S. strategy. Details of the meeting were not released.
Gibbs said the administration wanted to "poke and prod" potential new strategies to "ensure that we've done it the right way, then implement tactics to achieve that strategy."
Obama is moving with extreme deliberation even though he said during the presidential campaign that defeating the Taliban militants and al-Qaida was essential to U.S. security. He moved swiftly on that pledge in the early days of his 8-month-old term, ordering an additional 21,000 forces into the country.
In combination with NATO forces, the allies have about 100,000 personnel in Afghanistan's rugged terrain.
Top Democrats in Congress have begun expressing worries about the U.S.-led effort, however, 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.
Republican Sen. John McCain, Obama's opponent in last year's election, said in a television interview Wednesday that the president cannot give up on Afghanistan. The Arizona senator argued that the entire region would be destabilized if the United States and NATO pulled back.
Urging Obama to accept McChrystal's recommendations quickly, McCain said: "Time is not on our side. So we need a decision pretty quickly. I think history is pretty clear that when the Taliban took over, it became a base for attacks on the United States and our allies."
Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, said that Obama was endangering U.S. troops in Afghanistan by spending time weighing his next move in Afghanistan. "As long as they are delaying, that puts in jeopardy, I believe, our men and women," he said.
The United States went to war in Afghanistan in late 2001 with a mission to remove the Taliban from power and to capture or kill al-Qaida boss Osama bin Laden, the sponsor of Sept. 11 terror attacks that year.
The Taliban fell quickly, but bin Laden escaped across the border into the towering mountains in Pakistan and has eluded American forces ever since.
In the meantime, the Taliban has staged a resurgence and now has taken control of more than half of Afghanistan. The insurgents have regained so much strength that August became the deadliest month of the war so far for U.S. troops. Fifty-one died.
Wednesday's White House session was believed to have been the most high-powered gathering so far.
It was to have included Vice-President Joe Biden; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Gates; Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan; Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. David Petraeus, chief of the U.S. Central Command; McChrystal; Admiral Dennis Blair, director of National Intelligence; CIA Director Leon Panetta; Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan; Anne Patterson, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan; and national security adviser Gen. James Jones.