High Stakes: Obama To Take Time to Decide Afghanistan Strategy

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.

As the debate about whether the White House should send more troops to Afghanistan intensifies, President Obama presided over the first of several planned high stakes National Security Council meetings on future U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A senior White House official told ABC News that today's three-hour meeting was largely a briefing from military, diplomatic and intelligence sources of how the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan has changed since March, when President Obama authorized 21,000 more troops sent to Afghanistan.

VIDEO: The president meets with national security team on whether to send more troops. Play

"It was a candid assessment of where we are in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the relationship between the two countries," the official says.

"Some things are better than expected," says the official, citing the degradation of al Qaeda troops through successful drone attacks in Pakistan, and the cooperation with and participation of the Pakistani government ever since the Taliban violated the cease fire deal the government attempted with the militant group.

"They realize the threat," he said.

On the other hand, the official says, "some things are more challenging." Such as the flawed, some say corrupt election in Afghanistan and the precarious security situation there, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal has detailed.

Most of the meeting was spent getting updated, the official says, "looking at core goals, and assessing where we are in those goals."

Those in the White House Situation Room this afternoon included Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, Secretary of Defense Roberts Gates, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Gen. David Petraeus, commander, U.S. Central Command, among others.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was beamed in via satellite from Afghanistan.

The next NSC meeting will be next Wednesday.

Just how to achieve those goals has become the object of renewed debate in the wake of mounting U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, a worsening security situation on the ground, and widespread corruption allegations in the recent Afghan national elections. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, reportedly wants about 40,000 more troops for the mission, but the White House won't commit until it settles on a strategy.

"The tough question they're asking themselves is the relationship of Afghanistan to Pakistan. If we take the risk of failing in Afghanistan then what happens then to Pakistan 13 and is there a relationship. In my own mind, they're inextricably linked," said retired General Jack Keane.

"Pakistan is a country of far more strategic significance to the region and to the united states than Afghanistan 7 and believe me, we cannot fail in Afghanistan and expect to succeed in Pakistan 14 that won't work," Keane said.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Wednesday that Gates "has made it clear that he is as yet undecided about what the appropriate tact should be going forward in Afghanistan," and that he is going into today's meeting "open-minded, undecided."

Many Republicans have recently been critical of the administration for the pending strategy review, suggesting that the president is moving too slowly toward a decision.

"Time is not on our side, so we need a decision pretty quickly, and I think [McChrystal] is very clear that when Taliban took over Afghanistan, it became a base of attack on the United States and our allies," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on "Good Morning America" today, adding that not increasing the troop count "could lead to that scenario and have a destabilizing effect on the region."

McCain and proponents of more troops in Afghanistan, which is the size of California and New York combined, argue that the surge in Iraq worked. But with Afghanistan being 80,000 square miles larger than Iraq and boasting a more rugged terrain, skeptics point out that the comparison is misleading.

"There are still populated areas that still need to be under control," McCain said. "You need to go in. ... You hold, you allow the political, economic and cultural life to continue. Look, there are grave problems here. But I would say, in comparison to Iraq, when we started the surge, not as bad."

Among the issues the National Security Council will debate at today's meeting are:

-- How can we best focus on dismantling al Qaeda?

-- Does providing security for the provinces against the Taliban make sense if most al Qaeda members are now in Pakistan?

-- Can the success of the surge in Iraq be replicated in a country of harsher terrain, that is 80,000 square miles larger and not nearly as advanced in terms of government or economy?

-- Does the Taliban pose an existential threat to the United States? If not, need they be defeated?

-- Does "nation building" in Afghanistan make sense if it's not clear that the nation can be built?

-- Will allowing the Taliban to reconstitute itself even further allow al Qaeda more safe havens?

-- Is President Hamid Karzai more albatross than ally?

More Troops to Afghanistan?

The president will undoubtedly ask McChrystal about his report in which the general wrote, "We must act now.

"Failure to gain the initiative in the near term -- the next 12 months -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible," McChrystal wrote.

McChrystal will push a strategy of making the Afghan people more secure. "Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population. In the struggle to gain the support of the people, every action we take must enable this effort," he wrote. "The population also represents a powerful actor that can and must be leveraged in this complex system. Gaining their support will require a better understanding of the people's choices and needs."

On CBS' "60 Minutes," in an interview that aired Sunday, McChrystal said, "What I'm really telling people is, the greatest risk we can accept is to lose the support of the people here. If the people are against us, we cannot be successful. If the people view us as occupiers and the enemy, we can't be successful and our casualties will go up dramatically."

As for Obama, he told NBC, "What I'm not also going to do, though, is put the resource question before the strategy question. Until I'm satisfied that we've got the right strategy, I'm not going to be sending some young man or woman over there -- beyond what we already have."

As it stands now, 68,000 U.S. troops are expected to be in Afghanistan by the end of the year.

Meeting with NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen, Obama spoke of his approach to the next steps in Afghanistan.

"It is absolutely critical that we are successful in dismantling, disrupting, destroying the al Qaeda network and that we are effectively working with the Afghan government to provide the security necessary for that country," the president said. "This is not an American battle. This is a NATO mission as well. And we are working actively and diligently to consult with NATO at every step of the way."

Biden, who told reporters this summer that the U.S. has enough forces in Afghanistan, has suggested an alternative strategy, which would entail a narrower focus for U.S. troops -- less nation-building, more counterterrorism, ultimately resulting in fewer troops.

A book influencing the debate is "Lessons in Disaster," White House officials say. The book, co-written by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson national security adviser McGeorge Bundy and foreign policy scholar Gordon M. Goldstein, is about the path to war in Vietnam.

"In both situations, we have a confrontation where we are now engaged in an open-ended military deployment, an open-ended military mission with no obvious end point in which we can claim success," Goldstein said.

He said that one of the lessons in disaster "is learned from Kennedy in 1961, who rejected his advisers' proposal to escalate significantly in Viet Nam with the first ground combat troop deployments there. There's a lesson that that president learned and that this president now confronts is -- Counselors advise, but presidents decide."

McCain said the United States risks losing Afghanistan to insurgents if more troops are not deployed there.

"We risk Afghanistan returning to a base of attack on the United States and its allies," he said.

As for how quickly another surge could end the conflict, McCain said, "I don't know the length of time, but I know within a year, 18 months, we could start experiencing success. Afghans don't want the Taliban back ... but there's just not enough of them."

ABC News' Kristina Wong, Huma Khan and Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.