Risks Abound as Obama Nears Afghan Troop Decision

The White House may soon announce how many additional soldiers to send to Afghanistan

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A variety of news reports indicate that President Obama is nearing a decision on troop levels in Afghanistan. The White House appears to have decided on an increase, with officials still debating either three or four different options on precisely how many troops to send. General Stanley McChrystal, the top ISAF commander in Afghanistan, had earlier called for 40,000 more troops, which is reportedly the highest number Obama is considering sending. One report says an increase of 34,000 has already been decided. As he nears the announcement, Obama will have to be mindful of the political situation in Washington as well as the military situation in Afghanistan.

  • Nov. 19th-20th Roll-Out  Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin estimates that, whatever the strategy will be, it announced around November 19th or 20th. "The review has entered its final stages, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Advisor Jim Jones now taking the lead and putting on the final touches [...] The administration sent a team to Brussels this week to consult with all 43 member nations of the International Security Assistance Force, including all 28 NATO nations," he writes. "Sources both inside the government and in the larger diplomatic community in Washington are now standing on high alert, preparing for a rollout many feel is imminent."
  • Heavy On Special Operations  Spencer Ackerman believes that the involvement of two Special Operations admirals signals that "the internal debate has moved past a rigid choice between expansive missions to provide security for Afghan civilians and narrowly tailored missions to find and kill terrorists." How? "They are said to favor large infusions of U.S. troops to Afghanistan for performing counterinsurgency operations in select population centers, but they also advocate marshalling forces to pursue terrorists across Afghanistan’s rugged, mountainous terrain." Ackerman reports that these admirals favor aggressive use of special forces, including, as one source tells Ackerman, "small groups of Rangers going wherever the hell they want to go."
  • Must Appeal to Allies  Financial Times's Philip Stephens weighs the political stakes with our heavily-European allies in the war. "No one is venturing firm dates. The administration cannot afford to get either the substance or the choreography of this one wrong," he writes. "Domestic politics apart, the administration needs to carry the allies contributing troops, and taking losses, on the ground in Afghanistan. Carl Levin, the astute chairman of the Senate armed forces committee, goes so far as to suggest that the president consider unveiling the plan at Nato headquarters in Brussels. [...] The Europeans, for all the disquiet of their voters, seem ready for now to stick with the war. "
  • Learn From Bush  Foreign Policy's Peter Feaver suggests Obama take a page from Bush's political playbook. "President Bush faced far more daunting political odds in January 2007 when he opted for the Iraq surge," he notes. "The media will focus on the numbers, but the President should focus on explaining the strategy and demonstrating his commitment to seeing it through because the numbers are likely to change. [...] The president will need a convincing answer for why he is authorizing a smaller surge than McChrystal requested. It is the president's call to make, but the experience of the Iraq war is a painful one in this regard. Secretary Rumsfeld still faces scathing criticism for trimming the troop requests of the original invasion -- for appearing to have authorized a bit less than needed rather than a bit more than was required. [...] Obama will need General McChrystal to validate publicly Obama's decision, just as General Petraeus validated publicly Bush's surge decision."
  • Consider Non-Military Interests  Matthew Yglesias worries that discussion over hot to process has been dominated by the military. "One thing I think this highlights is the limits of conducting this kind of debate more-or-less entirely within the four walls of the military. After all, why wouldn’t the special ops guys want to see as much resources as possible put into Afghanistan? At the end of the day to get a real debate going about the wisdom of going big you need someone in the room who represents a competing claim on the resources at hand," he writes. "If the meeting also includes someone who needs to worry about the budget deficit, or about health care, or about child nutrition, or preventing bridges from collapsing then maybe this doesn't look like such a great deal."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.