WASHINGTON – In the wake of a grim assessment from his top military commander in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama has begun a wholesale re-evaluation of war strategy, a process that goes beyond the current debate over troop levels to the question of U.S. strategic aims.
The review could lead to decisions to scale back broad efforts at political reform and economic development and to focus missions on hunting down al-Qaida, by using small special operations teams and armed Predator aircraft. A narrower American effort also could avert the need for additional troops, officials and experts said.
In recent comments, including several televised interviews over the weekend, Obama appeared to question the premise underlying the current U.S. approach, a strategy he approved only last March. As a result, military officials were scrambling Monday to determine how drastic any resulting changes are likely to be.
White House officials did little to publicly clarify the situation Monday, saying only that Obama was intent on completing a “strategic assessment” before making any decisions on more troops for the war. But the rekindled debate comes as a shock to some officials who considered broad U.S. strategy in Afghanistan to be a settled issue.
“The time for this discussion was back in November 2008,” said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing the internal debate.
In part, the shift in the White House stance came after Obama ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to help with last month’s Afghan national election, a ballot widely seen as fraudulent.
For weeks, military officials have been laying the groundwork to request additional troops. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander, warned in an assessment that more troops are needed to avoid a series of problems that could lead to the “failure” of the Afghan mission.
However, the debate goes deeper than the question of American troops. Obama has questioned whether the broad U.S. “counterinsurgency” strategy – improving government, combating corruption and economic development – is worth committing the extra troops such approaches require.
The administration’s alternative would be a narrower “counter-terrorism” objective focused on defeating al-Qaida. Such a strategy would require fewer than the 68,000 troops currently approved for the war.
Appearing on CNN Sunday, Obama asked: “Are we pursuing the right strategy?” On NBC, he said he would expand the counter-insurgency effort only if it contributes to the goal of defeating al-Qaida.
“I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan … or sending a message that America is here for the duration,” Obama said.
Among top administration officials, several have harbored doubts about the wisdom of a stepped-up counterinsurgency plan. Vice President Joe Biden and presidential chief of staff Rahm Emanuel have been among the strongest voices advocating a more limited mission in Afghanistan, a number of officials said.
The dissenting view has been strengthened by fraud and irregularities in the Afghan election, growing doubts among congressional Democrats, and falling support among Americans. Recent developments have provided them ammunition to argue that a strategy reliant on building support for Afghanistan’s central government is fundamentally flawed and possibly futile.
Obama signaled last week, in an appearance with the Canadian prime minister, that a deeper administration review was under way. “It’s important that we also do an assessment on the civilian side, the diplomatic side, the development side; that we analyze the results of the election and then make further decisions moving forward,” he said then.
McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy would require additional troops, although it is not yet clear precisely how many he will ask for. The White House asked McChrystal not to submit his request for additional troops, and the command in Afghanistan is holding his recommendation while the administration reviews his assessment, military and government officials said.
“They have buyer’s remorse for this war,” said a defense analyst who regularly advises the military, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “They never really thought about what was required, and now they have sticker shock.”