Obama said to want revised Afghanistan options

Associated Press and Associated Press

WASHINGTON- President Barack Obama rejected the Afghanistan war options before him and asked for revisions, his defense secretary said yesterday, after the U.S. ambassador in Kabul argued that a significant U.S. troop increase would only prop up a weak, corruption-tainted government.

Obama’s ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, who is also a former commander in Afghanistan, twice in the last week voiced strong dissent against sending large numbers of new forces, according to an administration official. That puts him at odds with the current war commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who is seeking thousands more troops.

Eikenberry’s misgivings, expressed in classified cables to Washington, highlight administration concerns that bolstering the American presence in Afghanistan could make the country more reliant on the U.S., not less. He expressed his objections just ahead of Obama’s latest war meeting Wednesday.

At the war council meeting, Obama asked for changes in the four options he was given that could alter the dynamic of both how many additional troops are sent to Afghanistan and their timeline in the war zone.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the discussion turned on ‘how can we combine some of the best features of several of the options to maximum good effect.’ He added: ‘There is a little more work to do. I do think that we’re getting toward the end of this process.’

One issue in the discussions, Gates said, has been ‘How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this isn’t an open-ended commitment.’

The president wants to clarify pp how and when U.S. troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government, said another official, who spoke on condition of anonymity discuss administration deliberations.

Meanwhile, Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, left late Wednesday for consultations with allies in Berlin, Paris and Moscow. British officials also are expected at some point to join the talks, part of a continuing effort to coordinate with allies, brief them on Obama’s strategy review and discuss what more they might contribute in Afghanistan.

The developments underscore U.S. skepticism about the leadership of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose government has been dogged by corruption. The emerging administration message is that Obama will not do anything to lock in an open-ended U.S. commitment.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday voiced a list of concerns about Afghanistan: ‘corruption, lack of transparency, poor governance, absence of the rule of law.’

‘We’re looking to President Karzai as he forms a new government to take action that will demonstrate – not just to the international community but first and foremost to his own people – that his second term will respond the needs that are so manifest,’ Clinton said during a news conference in Manila with Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo.

Obama is still expected to send in more troops to bolster a deteriorating war effort.

He remains close to announcing his revamped war strategy – troops are just one component – and probably will do so shortly after he returns from a trip to Asia that ends Nov. 19.

Yet in Wednesday’s pivotal war council meeting, Obama wasn’t satisfied with any of the Afghanistan war options presented by his national security team, one official said.

Military officials said Obama has asked for a rewrite before and resisted what one official called a one-way highway toward commander McChrystal’s recommendations for more troops. The sense that he was being rushed and railroaded has stiffened Obama’s resolve to seek information and options beyond military planning, officials said, though a substantial troop increase is still likely.

The president is considering options that include adding 30,000 or more U.S. forces to take on the Taliban in key areas of Afghanistan and to buy time for the Afghan government’s inadequate and ill-equipped fighting forces to prepare to take over. The other three options on the table are ranges of troop increases, from a relatively small addition of forces to the roughly 40,000 that McChrystal prefers, according to military and other officials.

The war is now in its ninth year and is claiming U.S. lives at a record pace as military leaders say the Taliban has the upper hand in many parts of the country.

Ambassador Eikenberry, who was the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan for two years ending in 2007, is a prominent voice among those advising Obama, and his sharp dissent is sure to affect the equation.

The options given to Obama will now be altered, although not overhauled.

Military officials say one approach is a compromise battle plan that would add 30,000 or more U.S. forces atop a record 68,000 in the country now. They described it as ‘half and half,’ meaning half fighting and half training and holding ground so the Afghans can regroup.

‘The government of Afghanistan has to accept greater responsibility for its own defense,’ Clinton said yesterday. She had no comment on the Eikenberry memos.

Among the options for Obama would be ways to phase in additional troops, perhaps eventually equaling McChrystal’s full request, based on security or other conditions in Afghanistan and troop levels by U.S. allies there.

The White House has chafed under criticism from Republicans and some outside critics that Obama is dragging his feet to make a decision.

Obama’s top military advisers have said they are comfortable with the pace of the process, and senior military officials have pointed out that the president still has time since no additional forces could begin flowing into Afghanistan until early next year.

Under the scenario featuring about 30,000 more troops, that number most likely would be assembled from three Army brigades and a Marine Corps contingent, plus a new headquarters operation that would be staffed by 7,000 or more troops, a senior military official said. There would be a heavy emphasis on the training of Afghan forces, and the reinforcements Obama sends could include thousands of U.S. military trainers.