President Obama Meets With National Security Team on Afghanistan

Top general wants up to 40K more; Obama is keeping his deliberations quiet.

October 7, 2009, 12:13 PM

Oct. 7, 2009 -- Gen. Stanley McChrystal's troop recommendation for Afghanistan was sent to President Barack Obama last week and distributed Monday to members of the national security team engaged in ongoing discussions of Afghanistan strategy, the Pentagon said today.

Obama made the request for the troop recommendation so he could read the report over the weekend.

McChrystal, commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, wants as many as 40,000 more troops for the mission, but the White House won't commit until it settles on a strategy, officials told ABC News.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell was peppered with questions today about how distribution of the report squares with the administration's position that the troop request would not be on the table for discussion until after the strategy had been defined.

The troop request has not entered strategy-session discussions at this point, Morrell said.

"I think things can work in parallel in the sense that it can operate through the chain of command for formal vetting and comment and so forth," he said. "But, ultimately, it means, frankly, nothing until there is a decision made about the way ahead."

Instead of losing time while the review takes place, "I think the belief is, 'Let's work it through the chain of command as it should be and we can use that time towards that ends while this discussion, at a more macro level, takes place,'" Morrell said.

Of the request itself, Morrell said, it lists various options but ultimately makes one recommendation.

"This is a more analytical document ... as it's been described to me, which would, indeed, offer a range of options, but ultimately provide one recommendation from the field general."

Obama sat down with his national security team today as part of the ongoing high-stakes National Security Council meetings on future U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Today's meeting focused on Pakistan and Friday's meeting will be about Afghanistan.

An administration official said the meeting was "a comprehensive update on the situation in Pakistan."

"[The president] received a comprehensive intelligence and counterterrorism assessment, as well as an assessment of the political and diplomatic situation," this official said. "The president continues to look for ways to improve cooperation, and to continue disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda."

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 Robert Gates, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, among others.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was beamed in via satellite.

U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

Obama is considering whether to adjust the strategy in Afghanistan and whether more troops will be needed in Afghanistan to implement any changes.

McChrystal has pushed for a quick decision.

"We must act now," he wrote in a report last month. "Failure to gain the initiative in the near term -- the next 12 months -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."

A new poll from The Associated Press found that public support for the war in Afghanistan now stands at 40 percent, down from 44 percent in July.

The president has convened a series of meetings with his key national security and foreign policy advisers over the coming weeks. At this point, it does not look as if Obama has made up his mind on the way forward and may be looking for a middle ground, ABC News' George Stephanopoulos reported. His decision is expected to come at the end of October or early November.

Eight years ago today, U.S. forces stormed into Afghanistan, weeks after Osama bin Laden orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks from his Afghan hideout. The Taliban was quickly defeated and chased out of the country, and most Afghans rejoiced at the lifting of the Taliban's joyless regime.

But over the succeeding years, the Bush administration shifted its focus to the war in Iraq and an inept and corrupt Afghan government allowed the Taliban to regain first a foothold in the country and grow large enough to threaten the current regime.

Presidential elections in Afghanistan this fall were tainted by widespread charges of fraud, leaving the U.S. with an unpopular ally in the capital of Kabul.

Obama Meets With Lawmakers

With mounting casualties and mounting pressure from lawmakers, Obama met Tuesday for nearly 90 minutes with leaders of the House and Senate from both parties and at times the session was testy.

The differences in opinions in the room were clear. Republicans told the president that they support McChrystal's request for more troops for Afghanistan.

"I'm very convinced that Gen. McChrystal's analysis is not only correct but should be employed as quickly as possible," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., after the meeting.

"I think I can safely say that there is widespread feeling within our Congress, that we have confidence in Gen. Petreaus and Gen. McChrystal and if they're on board, I would think that a significant numbers of our members will be as well," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

When McCain said during the meeting that the decision on strategy cannot happen at a leisurely pace, Obama appeared irritated and shot back that "it won't," sources told Stephanopoulos.

After the meeting, Democrats praised the president for delaying any decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan.

"He just said he wants to make sure that we have a strategy before we start committing resources," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Some Democrats are pressing Obama to look at changing his policy from one of counterinsurgency, which means more troops, to a mission focusing on counterterrorism, which would rely heavily on special operations forces and missile strikes and would not require more troops. The second approach is championed by Biden.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., were the most skeptical about sending more troops to Afghanistan, while Reps. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., were most hawkish on troop levels.

Where Obama will end up is unclear. But when he visited the National Counterterrorism Center Tuesday, the president made a point of highlighting the progress made against al Qaeda with missile strikes.

"As one counterterrorism expert observed, because of our efforts al Qaeda and its allies have not only lost operational capacity, they've lost legitimacy and credibility," he said.

In his remarks, Obama never mentioned Afghanistan. An hour before he spoke, the bodies of eight soldiers killed in a horrific ambush over the weekend arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

U.S. casualties have spiked in recent weeks -- eight killed over the last weekend alone -- adding to a death toll that nears 800. In six days, the United States has lost 17 soldiers, nearly half as many of the losses suffered the entire month of September.

Obama met with his national security team last week for a three-hour session that was largely a briefing from military, diplomatic and intelligence sources on 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.

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

ABC News' Sunlen Miller and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.

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