One path is not to send anymore troops to Afghanistan, considered a "high risk option." The second is to send 40,000 troops, and the third calls for a major increase in troops, far more than 40,000.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, according to the source, recommends the "middle" option of 40,000 as the minimum number needed to have a chance of success in Afghanistan (surely understanding that not only would the much higher number be impossible to get approved but impossible to support, given a military that is stretched thin).
The White House, however, is downplaying the troop numbers as the focus of the president's deliberations. "The troop resource request has certainly come up," a White House aide tells ABC News. "But the larger focus is strategy."
And that focus is clearly shifting away from the Taliban in Afghanistan to al Qaeda in Pakistan. "The president has a different obligation than his commanders," said the aide. "He needs to see this in a global context."
The aide said that the focus must be on preventing attacks on the United States and its allies. He pointed to successes in going after al Qaeda in Pakistan, but also added that President Obama would not "tolerate the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan, as was the case pre 9/11."
Shifting the focus away from the Taliban could draw stark lines between the president and his combat-experienced military commanders. The military has linked al Qaeda and the Taliban as a dual enemy, and recommends a counterinsurgency strategy to defeat them, which it believes would require more troops.
"There's no question in my mind that if the Taliban took large – took control of significant portions of Afghanistan, that that would be added space for al Qaeda to strengthen itself and more recruitment, more fundraising," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates early this week.
Some in the military are now comparing this to the recommendation that Gen. Eric Shinseiki gave on troop numbers to Donald Rumsfeld at the beginning of the Iraq War. That recommendation was ignored and even ridiculed by the Rumsfeld Pentagon.