President Obama won't decide whether to send more troops to Afghanistan until the country's political disputes settle down, senior administration officials said. On the advice of several key members of his war council, including National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones and Vice President Joe Biden, Obama plans to wait until Afghanistan holds a run-off presidential election on November 7, these officials said. (Officials, later in the day, said that no hard decision had been made about when to make the decision; the president "will announce the decision when he's ready," an aide said.) Speaking to reporters late yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the new administration strategy couldn't wait on a new Afghan government because the political situation might not be resolved for months, according to the Associated Press.
But an administration official said that one key question would be answered relatively soon, and said it would effect Obama's decision: whether the Taliban's disruption of the first Afghanistan election was a "one-off."
On Sunday, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel caught Gates by surprise when he emphasized that the main question Obama was debating was not "how many troops you send, but do you have a credible Afghan partner for this process that can provide the security and the type of services that the Afghan people need?"
"No one laid any lines in the sand," a third White House aide said about Emanuel's comments, which the official said were directed at Republicans in Congress.
"I think it was more an assertion that the Republicans who have all but ignored Afghanistan for 7 of the last 8 years and are now calling for immediate troop additions may want to learn lessons from Iraq and look to governing partners and overall strategies before just blindly adding troops without a plan."
Some of the White House pressure this weekend was intended to convey a message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai; right now, American leverage over Karzai is at its maximum, and the administration intends to use it to persuade Karzai and his allies to allow a clean election, which would, in turn, boost the legitimacy of the Afghan government.
Several weeks worth of war cabinet meetings have not made Obama's staff and NSC advisers any more comfortable with Gen. Stanley McChrystal's troop request.
They say that President Obama continues to be skeptical about the true applicability of the Iraq model, even allowing for McChrystal's insistence that it can be modified enough.
In terms of public opinion, White House officials who have searched for historical analogs worry that if President Obama doesn't fully endorse the troop surge but endorses it anyway, the American people will perceive his own doubts and assume them as their own, thereby adding even more external political pressure.