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Obama’s Defining Moment on Afghanistan

WASHINGTON - Eight years ago, the U.S.-led assault against al-Qaeda fighters and the Taliban regime that gave them haven in Afghanistan won almost universal backing from Americans reeling from the 9/11 attacks.

Now, as President Obama wrestles with whether to deploy tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops to the war there, he faces treacherous crosscurrents that have put him at odds with some of his strongest supporters - and created a potential public faceoff with the military commander he installed.

Obama met for three hours with his top national security advisers at the White House Situation Room on Wednesday and heads back there Friday for sessions on Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.

Besides becoming an early test of Obama's foreign policy, Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for more troops in Afghanistan has split U.S. public opinion. In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Tuesday, most Americans embrace U.S. goals in Afghanistan. Eight in 10 say weakening terrorists' ability to stage attacks on the United States is "an important reason" to stay, but they are less certain that progress is being made, especially in establishing a stable democracy.

At stake for Obama with his decision, expected this month, is not only the nation's strategy in a critical region but also his emerging profile as commander in chief. His advisers and analysts close to the administration suggest he is seeking a middle ground that would deploy a more modest number of additional troops while revamping some U.S. goals - with a final approach that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledges could leave all sides unhappy.

One complication: The public case McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has made for more troops. His words could be used to criticize Obama as doing too little to protect Americans' security if the president decides on a different course.

"It's a defining moment of his presidency," says Lee Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "It'll determine how we direct our foreign policy resources - and domestic resources, because wars cost a lot of money. It'll signal to the world whether he has very ambitious goals in the Middle East in terms of bringing about stability and viability of the nations there, or whether he seeks a more modest goal. And it'll have profound consequences in the region."

The debate has put Obama, who repeatedly has described Afghanistan as a "war of necessity," at odds with many fellow Democrats. At a meeting with congressional leaders in the State Dining Room on Tuesday, it was Obama's 2008 Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, who made the case for staying the course and praised McChrystal, as the Arizona senator told reporters in the White House driveway afterward.

Congress' top Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, was among those raising questions about making a greater commitment to the war in Afghanistan. She refused to say later whether she would necessarily support the president's decision once it's made.

The USA TODAY survey found a similar partisan divide: three-fourths of Republicans support sending more troops; six in 10 Democrats oppose it.

Among all Americans, the divide is almost even, with 48% in favor, 45% opposed. Most of those opposed say Obama should begin to withdraw U.S. troops rather than commit more.

Those attitudes contrast with public opinion when the war began Oct. 7, 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks. According to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken that day, nine of 10 Americans approved of the military action against Afghanistan. Just 5% disapproved.

Few imagined that U.S. troops might still be fighting there eight years later, though. Only 22% said the conflict would last more than two years. Close to half predicted it would be over within months.

Instead, Afghanistan now ranks second only to Vietnam as the longest war Americans have fought since the nation was founded.

Rethinking assumptions

Obama isn't considering an immediate drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Gibbs says. He dismisses that as a "straw man" critics are using to present the choices as all or nothing.

However, aides say a worsening security situation in Afghanistan and accusations of fraud against Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the Aug. 20 elections have led Obama to "reassess basic assumptions" he held when he committed 21,000 additional troops in March.

The situation "is more serious than we anticipated when the decisions were made in March," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a George Washington University forum Monday. House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., calls the questionable Afghan election "the elephant in the tent."

In recent months, violence has increased dramatically in Afghanistan - one apparent factor in the erosion of public support. There were 294 U.S. and coalition fatalities in the Afghanistan campaign in all of 2008, according to icasualties.org. In comparison, there have been 401 already this year, the website says. A total of 1,446 coalition troops, including 869 Americans, have died in the war since 2001.

Now, military analysts, including some with ties to the Pentagon, describe three options:

Go all in: McChrystal advocated a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy in the assessment he submitted to Gates, which was leaked to The Washington Post. U.S. and NATO forces would focus on protecting civilians while bolstering Afghan security forces and helping to build governmental institutions, repelling any resurgence of the Taliban.

This labor-intensive solution resembles the increase in U.S. forces in Iraq ordered by then-President Bush in January 2007. There, the security and political situation improved after U.S. troops were redeployed off large bases and placed in small outposts to better secure neighborhoods, particularly in Baghdad and the troubled Anbar province.

McChrystal's request likely includes both combat forces and trainers for Afghan security forces, says John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert at the Center for a New American Security and a member of the Defense Policy Board, which advises Gates.

Redefine the mission: Narrowing U.S. goals to an antiterrorism approach that focused on combating al-Qaeda wouldn't require as many U.S. troops.

With this strategy, the United States might step up unmanned drone attacks on al-Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan and use limited numbers of Special Forces soldiers for high-level targets. Stabilizing the Afghan government and fighting the Taliban wouldn't get as much attention.

Andrew Bacevich of Boston University is one advocate of this approach, combined with an effort to pay warlords to keep al-Qaeda out of their areas. The McChrystal plan is "a synonym for nation-building," he says. "I don't believe a nation-building project in Afghanistan is either necessary or plausible."

At the congressional meeting, Vice President Biden denied reports he was advocating an anti-terrorism strategy "exclusively," Gibbs said, which he defined as "extracting" a significant number of U.S. forces now in Afghanistan.

Still, Biden acknowledged in an interview with USA TODAY in June that he had argued the case against an extensive troop buildup this year while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton argued for it. "I had some disagreement in degree with her," Biden said then, "and the president ended up landing on a spot that was where she was."

A m@iddle ground: A third option would be to continue McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy but with only a modest increase in troops. The risk: Progress would take longer and the prospects of failure would rise.

"The debate right now is, does McChrystal really need 40,000?" says Andrew Krepinevich, a counterinsurgency specialist at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments who is a member of the Defense Policy Board. "I think the administration is trying to find that sweet spot."

Under this plan, the U.S. relationship with the Karzai government might be rethought but Obama wouldn't reverse strategy or abandon McChrystal.

"It would be hard for the president not to give him additional resources," Nagl says. "How many of them, I don't know."

Reasons to stay

The White House can take some comfort in the USA TODAY poll, which finds overwhelming majorities saying that weakening terrorists and keeping the Taliban from regaining control of Afghanistan are important reasons to keep U.S. troops there.

There is less certainty that the U.S. effort is succeeding, however. Just over 50% see movement toward quelling terrorists and the Taliban, but nearly six in 10 say there hasn't been progress toward building a stable democratic government.

One more finding: By 2 to 1, those surveyed say military commanders should state their positions privately to the president and others in the chain of command, not make them known publicly, as McChrystal did.

"The president can't escape the reality that this is a momentous decision," says James Lindsay, a National Security Council official in the Clinton White House. He notes comparisons being made to Lyndon Johnson when he considered calls to increase U.S. forces in Vietnam in the early 1960s - a war that came to dominate his presidency.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., says Obama will take his time to decide. "One thing I believe the president doesn't want to do is . . . look back and say, 'How did we get here?' "

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