Afghan War Casualties Raise Stakes on Troop Debate

PHOTO President Barack Obama holds a strategy review on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House, Sept. 30, 2009.Pete Souza/White House
President Barack Obama holds a strategy review on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House, Sept. 30, 2009.

Ten American troops were killed this past weekend in Afghanistan ensuring that October will be one of the deadliest months for the U.S. since the beginning of the war, and adding to the pressure on an administration deliberating its Afghan strategy.

"Obviously the president and the first lady send their condolences and are deeply saddened by the combat deaths that we heard about in Afghanistan over the weekend... obviously, the event -- any event that happens in Afghanistan is part of the backdrop of this assessment," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said today.

After recommending adding additional troops to Afghanistan, the president's top military commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal spoke publicly against drawing down troops last week in London. Afterwards, the president requested a private meeting with McChrystal aboard Air Force One while in Copenhagen. The White House has tried to downplay the notion that there was any rift between the commander and the president.

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"General McChrystal had a chance to spend time with the president on Friday. The president thought it was a very constructive meeting; that General McChrystal was doing, through this assessment, exactly what the president had asked him to do when he hired him to go to Afghanistan and assess where we were," Gibbs said.

But over the weekend, the president's national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones said on CNN's "State of the Union", "Ideally, it's better for military advice to come up through the chain of command."

McChrystal wrote in a recent report reviewing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that additional troops were needed within the next year, or the U.S. effort would "likely result in failure."

Jones said Sunday that the number of troops is just one of the many factors in the current strategy that are important to success in Afghanistan.

"The end is much more complex than just about adding X number of troops," Jones said on CNN. "The key in Afghanistan, as we said back in March, is to have a triad of things happen simultaneously. Security is obviously one reason, one important thing to take care of, but the other two are economic development and good governance in the rule of law and on that score, we have a lot more work to do and a Karzai government is going to have to pitch in and do much better than they have."

Jones said the president was "just now receiving" the number of requested additional troops, but it had not been discussed yet.

"Troops are a portion of the answer, but not the total answer," Jones said on CBS. "Our process is to examine the strategy, make sure we have that right."

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said McChrystal's military assessment was only one of many different the president has to consider.

"The president has to make a judgment based not only on the military assessment of his commander on the ground, also the inputs of his diplomats, his ambassadors. He has to look at the military, the security situation. We have NATO partners involved. We also have Pakistan next door, which is critically important to this equation, and the entire global effort to fight and defeat al-Qaeda. The president, as commander in chief, has to look at more than what is happening in a single theater," Rice said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Rice disputed the suggestion that the war was not already fully resourced.

"We are fully resourcing it," Rice said on NBC. "We have put in place 21,000 additional troops. They are still completing their deployment. We have increased the number of civilians and we have increased the financial resources to Afghanistan and Pakistan substantially."

The deliberations over strategy come as public support for the war has waned. According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted Sept. 10-12, 51 percent of adults said the war in Afghanistan wasn't worth fighting, up from 41 percent in March.

Rice would not say whether the president was committed to not leaving Afghanistan until it was stable.

Asked three times whether the president was committed to staying in Afghanistan until it became stable, Rice repeated that the president was committed to doing what was essential and necessary to keep America safe.

"I'm not going to prejudge the outcome of this review," she said.

But today the White House made it clear that leaving Afghanistan was not on the table of options the president was considering.

"The president was exceedingly clear that no part of the conversation on -- no part of the conversation involved was leaving Afghanistan. That's not something that has ever been entertained, despite the fact that people still get asked, 'What happens if we leave Afghanistan?' That's not a decision that's on the table to make," said Gibbs.

Jones said he thought the president would make a decision on what to do in Afghanistan in a "matter of weeks."

However, when asked today what "inning" the assessment was in, Gibbs replied, "You haven't even gone for your first beer yet."

Recently, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., accused the administration of playing politics with the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan because of the rising Democratic opposition, an assertion that both Jones and Rice vehemently denied.

"I don't play politics, and I certainly don't play it with national security and neither does anyone else I know," Jones said on CNN. "The lives of our young men and women are on the line. The strategy does not belong to any political party and I can assure you that the president of the United States is not playing to any political base. And I take exception to that remark."

"This is a president who is going to do what is necessary, irrespective of politics, to protect the American people," Rice said.

After Sen. McCain gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor last week demanding that Gen. McChrystal and other Afghan War military and civilian leaders testify in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the White House announced they would brief congressional leaders on the president's Afghanistan strategy review on Tuesday.