President Obama’s Operating Space on Afghanistan Gets Narrower

Oct 26, 2009 6:10am

ABC News' Kristina Wong reports: A month into reviewing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, President Obama appears to be operating in an increasingly narrowing space between reality on the ground in Afghanistan and political camps in Washington, with pressure closing in from all sides.

Leading one camp is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is urging the president to make a decision on strategy in Afghanistan as soon as possible, and follow the recommendations laid out by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in his Aug. 30 assessment on how to succeed in Afghanistan, including adopting a counterinsurgency strategy that would strengthen Afghanistan’s central government, and deprive al-Qaida of a safe haven there. McCain is also urging the president to follow McChrystal’s recommendation of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by around 40,000 – the middle option of three recommended in a separate troops request.

“We are not operating in a vacuum now. 68,000 Americans are there already. Eight young Americans were killed in a firefight – one of the reasons is they didn’t have adequate support – just recently,” McCain said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday.

On the other side is Vice President Joe Biden, who reportedly favors a counterterrorism strategy that would scale back the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and specifically target members of al-Qaida with predator drone attacks. With him are liberal Democrats such as Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who said this weekend, he would move to legislatively cut off funds for additional troops should the president decide to order a large number of additional American troops to Afghanistan.

“I am already working with people like Representative Jim McGovern, Republican Congressman Walter Jones, Barbara Lee and others to prepare for that possibility. I have already voted against various spending bills that support this policy. I didn’t even think the addition of the troops earlier this year made sense. So there will be resistance to this if necessary,” said Feingold, who also spoke Sunday on “Face the Nation”.

Another parameter shaping President Obama’s decision-making space is the upcoming Nov. 7 run-off presidential election in Afghanistan, after its first election on Aug. 20 was found by international monitors to be fraught with fraud perpetrated by supporters of the current Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. One camp is urging President Obama to not wait until after the election, while the other deems it necessary to see what type of government the U.S. could be working with.

After Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., returned last week from a diplomatic tour de force to Afghanistan, during which he convinced President Karzai to accept the International Election Commission’s vote count and agree to a run-off election, he urged the president to wait until after the Nov. 7 elections to make a decision on strategy, saying it would “irresponsible” to decide to send more troops before then.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, blasted the idea the president should wait until after the elections to make a decision on strategy.

“I understand why these are tough decisions, but I think it’s taken too long and some people have been hypercritical in suggesting that he’s waiting until after this election because [Democrats] have some tough governorships up for election. I hope that’s not the case,” Hatch said on CNN’s “State of the Union”, referring to the upcoming Nov. 4 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia – where Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and Democrat Creigh Deeds are facing competitive races.

Asked whether Hatch agreed with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who recently accused the president of “dithering” on Afghanistan strategy and emboldening U.S. adversaries, he said he would never want to call his president “dithering.”

“I know it’s a tough position that he’s in, but why not follow he advice of all of his generals and especially General McChrystal?” Hatch said. “They need these troops, there’s no question about it. And we’re exposing our young men and women over there – a number of them have been killed, I’m not blaming the president for that, but we’re exposing them without the proper help that they’ve just got to have.”

But Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, disagreed, saying the president should be taking his time in getting the strategy right.

“We want to do this right. We should move deliberatively. We should move in a way that the president is doing by making this decision the right way,” Brown said, also on “State of the Union. “The president is doing it right, I think, waiting until the – not the Virginia and New Jersey election, but waiting until the election in Kabul and in the Helmand province and in Kandahar is the right way to go.”

While White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said last Sunday the president was not delaying a decision based on the elections’ outcome, he said that “most important” was that Afghanistan “get a government that is seen as legitimate to the people and has the credibility to be a partner in the effort to secure Afghanistan.”

One element complicating the dilemma of whether to wait for the run-off election results or not is the broad expectation that President Karzai — who is associated with Afghanistan's current corrupt and inept central government — will win. Recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said one could conclude the likelihood of Afghan President Kharzai “winning a second round is probably pretty high.”

Therefore, on one hand, elections could fail to lend the Afghan government sufficient credibility if the winner is Karzai – and troops would be needed to bolster security in Afghanistan regardless of the elections' outcome. But on the other hand, the elections themselves could lend credibility to Karzai or the winning government, which could provide the U.S. with a credible Afghan partner and help improve the security situation in Afghanistan without a large number of additional troops.

White House officials have downplayed the importance of additional troops as the main determinant of success in Afghanistan, citing governance and economic development as other important determinants. The Wall Street Journal recently reported the possibility of a hybrid strategy, between a 40,000 troops increase, and the scaled-back counterterrorism strategy presented by Biden.

Yet, middle ground for the Obama Administration could be getting scarcer, with President Karzai and his opponent, former foreign minister of Afghanistan Dr. Abdullah Abdullah calling for additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan themselves.

“The need for more troops is there in order to reverse the situation. If the situation is not reversed from deteriorating further the security situation, so the future of this country will be at risk,” Abdullah said on FOX’s “Fox News Sunday.”

“This situation requires a sort of dramatic increase in the number of troops in order to stop it from further deteriorating and reversing it. The permanent solution is in a road map that Afghanistan stands on its own feet in a few years down the road, number of troops could be decreased in Afghanistan, finally, and eventually will stand on its own feet,” Abdullah said.

A month after the President began his strategy review, and nearly two months after McChrystal’s assessment, pressure is closing in from all sides, with the same questions are still largely unanswered – what strategy will the president decide on and when? Will he send more American troops to Afghanistan and how many?

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., empathized with the president.

“I’m wrestling with it myself, and boy it’s difficult. There is no good answer,” Schumer said.

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