President sending message with war buildup hesitancy

By Robert Burns and Ben Feller
Associated Press / November 13, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama’s drawn-out decision-making on Afghanistan is sending messages. To the Afghan government: Clean up your act. To the Pentagon: I’m no rubber stamp. To the American public: More troops can’t be the sole answer.

Obama has been accused by some Republicans of “dithering’’ about whether to send more troops and deepen US involvement in an increasingly unpopular war.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters yesterday that the president was nearing a final decision, and he referred to one of the central questions Obama and his advisers are wrestling with: “How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this isn’t an open-ended commitment?’’

At a White House war council meeting Wednesday, Obama rejected the four Afghan war options put before him and asked for revisions that combine the best elements of the proposals, Gates said. The changes could alter how many troops are sent to Afghanistan and how long they stay.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling with Obama yesterday on the first leg of his Asia trip that the president wanted more study of the options to ensure there’s a real exit strategy, including benchmarks for success. “It’s important to fully examine not just how we’re going to get folks in, but how we’re going to get folks out,’’ Gibbs said.

Obama, who is not expected to decide the Afghan matter until after he returns from Asia late next week, is considering options that include adding 30,000 or more US troops to take on the Taliban and associated insurgent groups in key areas of Afghanistan - and to buy time for the Afghan government’s inadequate and ill-equipped fighting forces to prepare to take over defense of their country. The other three options are ranges of troop increases, from a relatively small addition to the roughly 40,000 preferred by the top US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, according to officials.

In contrast to the McChrystal approach, US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in Kabul has argued against sending large numbers of additional troops. Eikenberry, himself a former US military commander in Afghanistan, harbors strong doubts about the viability of the government there.

James Dobbins, who served as special envoy to Afghanistan during the Bush administration, said the Obama review “has gone on long enough and it is starting to create fissures’’ among his advisers, as evidenced by the apparent split between Eikenberry and McChrystal.