Decision on troops near, Obama faces tough sell

By Anne Gearan and Jennifer Loven
Associated Press / November 24, 2009

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WASHINGTON - The White House braced for a tough sell of President Obama’s long-awaited decision on whether to commit tens of thousands of new US forces to the stalemated war in Afghanistan, even as the president met yesterday with top advisers for possibly the last major deliberations before an announcement.

Military officials and others expect Obama to settle on a middle-ground option that would deploy 32,000 to 35,000 US forces to the eight-year-old conflict. That rough figure has stood as the most likely option since before Obama’s held another large war council meeting earlier this month, when he tasked military planners with rearranging the timing and makeup of some deployments.

The president has said with increasing frequency in recent days that a big piece of the rethinking of options that he ordered had to do with building an exit strategy into the announcement - in other words, revising the options presented to him to clarify when US troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government and under what conditions.

As White House press secretary Robert Gibbs put it to reporters yesterday, it’s “not just how we get people there, but what’s the strategy for getting them out.’’

Obama held the 10th meeting of his Afghanistan strategy review since mid-September last night, with a large cast of foreign policy and military advisers, to go over that revised information from war planners. The two-hour Situation Room session was aimed at discussing “some of the questions that the president had, some additional answers to what he’d asked for,’’ Gibbs said.

The meeting was arranged for the unusual nighttime slot to accommodate Obama’s packed public schedule and the fact that many of his top advisers were leaving town for the holiday. No more war council meetings are on the calendar.

The presidential spokesman had said ahead of the meeting that it was possible Obama could lock in a decision then, or that one could come “over the course of the next several days.’’ In either case, it will not be announced this week, he said, and the meeting concluded with no announcement about a decision.

The White House is aiming for an announcement by Obama next week, either Tuesday or Wednesday.

Military officials, congressional aides, and European diplomats said they expect Obama to deliver a national address laying out the revamped strategy.

Congressional hearings would immediately follow that address, including testimony from the US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. Others likely to take part in hearings would be Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Karl Eikenberry, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan. The four were among the approximately 20 top administration officials and Obama advisers participating in the talks last night - one of the biggest groups gathered for these sessions in some time.

Obama must not only sell his plan to the public, but to foreign allies whose additional resources the White House wants in Afghanistan and to lawmakers on Capitol Hill who would be asked the fund the effort.

Gibbs said that the subject of a war tax on the wealthy, proposed by a handful of leading Democrats, has not come up in the war council meetings. But the idea, though unlikely to pass Congress, is one way for Democrats who are coming to dislike the war in greater numbers to challenge the president to confront the cost of any escalation.

Democratic allies of the president, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, have become more outspoken on the war in other forums as well.