Plan would narrow goals in Afghanistan war
President Barack Obama’s plan to widen U.S. involvement in Afghanistan came after an internal debate in which Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
warned against getting into a political and military quagmire, while military advisers argued that the Afghanistan war effort could be imperiled without even more troops.
All of the president’s advisers agreed that the primary goal in the region should be narrow ? taking aim at Al Qaeda, as opposed to the vast attempt at nation-building the Bush administration had sought in Iraq. The question was how to get there.
The commanders in the field wanted a firmer and long-term commitment of more combat troops beyond the 17,000 that Mr. Obama had already promised to send, and a pledge that billions of dollars would be found to significantly expand the number of Afghan security forces.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pressed for an additional 4,000 troops to be sent to Afghanistan ? but only to serve as trainers. They tempered the commanders’ request and agreed to put off any decision to order more combat troops to Afghanistan until the end of this year, when the strategy’s progress could be assessed.
During these discussions, Mr. Biden was the voice of caution, reminding the group members that they would have to sell their plans to a skeptical Congress.
This article is based on interviews with half a dozen officials who were involved in the debate. All requested anonymity because they were discussing meetings that involved classified material and the shaping of policy.
Mr. Obama left a final White House meeting in the Situation Room last Friday signaling to participants that he was close to a decision, but that he wanted to get comfortable with what he was going to do. He mulled the issue while at the Camp David presidential retreat over the weekend. On Wednesday, he told his top aides that he had made up his mind.
In announcing a plan on Friday that could be his signature foreign policy effort, Mr. Obama said that he would send more troops ? some 4,000 ? but stipulated that they would not carry out combat missions, and would instead be used to train the Afghan Army and the national police. He left himself open to the possibility of sending more as the situation warrants.
The debate over the past few weeks offered a glimpse into how Mr. Obama makes decisions. In this case, he chose a compromise between his political and military advisers that some critics say includes some strategic holes, such as a reliance on the same sort of vague guidelines that proved difficult to carry out in Iraq. It also offers insight into the role of Mr. Biden and other members of a foreign policy team that includes many powerful figures vying for Mr. Obama’s attention.
In the end the plan is a compromise that reflected all of the strains of the discussion among his advisers, one that is markedly different, though perhaps no less difficult, from the goals his predecessor set for the region. In speaking of Afghanistan and Iraq, President Bush spoke of lofty goals that included building nations that could stand as models of democracy in the Muslim world.
By contrast, at a White House news conference in which he invoked concerns of another possible terrorist attack on United States soil, Mr. Obama framed the issue as one that relies on one central tenet: protecting Americans from attacks like the one that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.
To do so, he said he would increase aid to Pakistan and would, for the first time, set benchmarks for progress in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban in both countries. “The United States of America did not choose to fight a war in Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said Friday in announcing his decision. “Nearly 3,000 of our people were killed on Sept. 11, 2001, for doing nothing more than going about their daily lives.
“So let me be clear: Al Qaeda and its allies ? the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks ? are in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said. “We have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”
Even as the White House emphasized its intention to create benchmarks to measure progress made by the Afghan and Pakistani governments in combating Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant groups, some Congressional officials briefed on the plan voiced skepticism about how realistic those goals were.
Part of Mr. Obama’s plan includes sending hundreds of additional diplomats and civilian experts into the region.
Admiral Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, submitted a classified review to the president, and among its 13 recommendations were to increase the number of U.S. ground forces, with significant emphasis on “enablers,” such as the new training teams. He also called for rapidly expanding Afghanistan’s forces to take over security operations from the United States and NATO, as well as to expand the counternarcotics effort in Afghanistan and increase the ability of Pakistan’s military to carry out counterinsurgency operations.
During the 90-minute debate last Friday afternoon, Mr. Obama, flanked by his national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, on his left, and Mr. Biden on his right, went around the table to elicit the final views of his national security team.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Richard C. Holbrooke, the president’s top aide on Afghanistan and Pakistan, favored wide-ranging coordinated efforts which would concentrate on corruption in Afghanistan as well as focus on training local officials and transforming agriculture in the country away from the notorious poppy fields that have been used to fuel the Taliban insurgency.
During the debate, the senior administration officials said, Mr. Biden sought to put strict parameters on the size of the additional force deployed to Afghanistan and to ensure there was a specific mission for them. Mr. Biden also cast the debate in terms of what was achievable in Mr. Obama’s first term, administration officials said.
Mr. Biden, White House officials said, was heavily influenced by the trip he took to Afghanistan and Pakistan just before the inauguration in January. He observed to Mr. Obama that if you asked 10 people on the ground what U.S. objectives were, he would get 10 different answers. That observation, aides said, carried weight with Mr. Obama and helped to lead to his decision to narrow the U.S. goal in Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama is dispatching Admiral Mullen and Mr. Holbrooke to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India next week to explain his new strategy to leaders there.
Chief among the aims of the two men will be to try to get Pakistani and Indian officials, in particular, to turn down the volume in their never-ending conflict, in the hopes that the Pakistani military can turn its attention to the fight against insurgents in border regions, and away from fighting India.
Thom Shanker and Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.
written by: Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt, 28-Mar-09