The president sent war council officials back to their desks to answer specific questions to which he has yet to hear the answers, senior administration officials tell ABC News.
For Pentagon officials, one official said, that meant "not just how many young men and women they want to go into Afghanistan — but when they can go home."
The president has not yet heard "sufficient explanation of how we get out of Afghanistan and not simply just be signing up for another eight years, the official said. He wants to know where the "off-ramps" are.
The president is well aware that there is no easy answer about the way forward in Afghanistan, an official said, but before making any decision he is pressing for all planners to set benchmarks of what can realistically be achieved by US troops, by US civilians, and by the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai — and plans for what to do next if those benchmarks are met, or if they are not.
The commitment of US troops in Afghanistan is not open-ended, the president has emphasized, and everyone involve needs to know that.
The president's eighth war council meeting, held on Wednesday, will almost certainly not be the last one, officials said.
Officials are now working on answering questions he has about all four of the possible strategies being debated — two from Gen. Stanley McChrystal and two other strategies.
Another senior administration official says the President was greatly impacted by two classified cables sent by the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Gen. Karl Eikenberry (Ret.), who expressed in urgent terms his concerns about sending any more US troops until Karzai can be viewed as a credible partner.
Said one official, "Karl has warned throughout this process about the limits of what we can expect out of the Karzai government," but these cables were significant.
The lack of faith the Obama administration has in Karzai's government's ability to clean up corruption and provide basic services for its people is a major source of concern for the president, officials said. Officials are working on a compact to lay out benchmarks for the Karzai government to meet in those areas, as well as in training Afghan police and Afghan army forces.
Eikenberry arguably "knows Afghanistan better than anyone else in the US government," a senior administration official said. "He's basically been there non-stop since 2003 in a range of capabilities, at a range of times, and in range of assignments," having served as United States Security Coordinator for Afghanistan, Chief of the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan and Commander of the Combined Forces Command.
As leader of the civilian diplomatic corps as Ambassador, Eikenberry is "lead civilian Big Dog in this fight," another official said. "The President really wants his unvarnished opinion."
The force structure in Afghanistan has already essentially been doubled since the president took office, with 13,000 troops already in the pipeline and 21,000 troops added by the President in March. There is no talk of withdrawing these forces as of now, but the president does not want to add more to their number without clear benchmarks and a timeline — he wants to know "not just how to get in there, but how to get out," an official said.
The recent advice of Gen. Colin Powell (Ret.) for the president to "take (his) time," was important, officials said, and squared with advice given by others who had made major military decisions to get it right, and not to get it done quickly.
Senior administration officials rejected accusations that this process was "dithering," as Vice President Cheney called it, or anything other than constructive. Military sources have said that regardless of the strategy the first new troops won't arrive in Afghanistan until January 2010, so more time for the president to make his decision will not necessarily impact that timeline$
One official argued that "this process makes the decision more informed. We will make a better decision because of this process."
The president is taking very seriously, an official said, the fact that he is the "sole person who can order these young people into harm's way," in conjunction with the grave "situation in the world in the moment" regarding extremism.