President Obama's ninth and final meeting of his war cabinet has given him the information he needs to make a decision about Afghanistan strategy, his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said in an e-mail late tonight.
"After completing a rigorous final meeting, President Obama has the information he wants and needs to make his decision and he will announce that decision within days," Gibbs said.
National Public Radio reported that the president intends to announce his decision next Tuesday, but a White House official said that no plans had yet been made. A speech was likely, as is the testimony of senior defense officials.
Step one after making the decision will be to brief NATO allies. That hasn't happened yet. In recent days, though, Obama aides have given reporters a peak at the president's thinking. They said they expect the commander in chief to approve north of 20,000 additional troops, but that he would probably not ask for all 40,000 requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the Afghanistan theater commander, pending the decision of other NATO countries to send more troops of their own.
The strategy announcement will be replete with references to various off-ramps and benchmarks, and the commanders will be responsible for regularly certifying compliance with them. If the benchmarks, such as they are, are not met, Obama may well draw down American troops. He has been advised privately by former Gen. Colin Powell to design and implement an exit strategy.
For weeks, his commanders have had a rough sense of where his mind was, although Obama has continuously pushed them to scale down their ambitions. It's probably safe to say that, at the beginning of the press, convincing the president to send any more troops to the region was a tough sell; he is closer today to his war commanders' points of view than where he was. But his own national security team, led by Gen. James Jones, feels it has succeeded in convincing the commanders that time is not on their side, that the troop increase is, in essence, the last hard power maneuver in the U.S. playbook, and that external factors beyond the performance of U.S. troops would dictate the future. The commanders, in other words, do not have a free hand: they must utilize the troops to achieve the goals laid out by political leaders in Washington.
Obama faces extreme pressure from Democrats in Congress to impose conditions on the troop increases, and he is likely to at least partially satisfy those Democrats. Unclear, at this point, whether his political base supports his decision because of the lengthy process he undertook to make it, or whether their skepticism about an unending, undefined conflict in the region pushes them to push congressional Democrats to stave off Obama's request for additional troop funding.
Americans are skeptical of the wisdom of fighting in Afghanistan. And the challenge for the White House now is to persuade them that the president is fully behind whatever strategy he is chosen. His aides believe that a half-hearted political communication campaign will place significant constraints on the mission itself.