National Security Team To Examine Afghan Strategy

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President Obama made Afghanistan and Pakistan top priorities when he entered the White House. But both countries are still struggling. And Tuesday, the president will hold the first in a series of meetings with his national security team to re-examine the strategy for both countries.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama made Afghanistan and Pakistan top priorities when he entered the White House, but both countries are still struggling. And today, the president will hold the first in a series of meetings to reexamine the strategy for both countries.

We have two reports, beginning with NPR's Jackie Northam, who looks at Afghanistan.

JACKIE NORTHAM: When President Obama announced his Afghanistan strategy in late March, he said that it would be up for review after the Afghan presidential election. He quickly ramped up troop levels to provide security for Afghans going to the polls. But that didn't do much to prevent widespread fraud, and there is still no outcome to the highly disputed election.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking on ABC's "This Week" program, said between the flawed elections and a bleak assessment of the situation in Afghanistan by General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander there, President Obama felt now was the time to stop and ask some key questions.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): Have we got the strategy right? Were the decisions that he made at the end of March the right ones? Do we need to make some adjustments in light of what we found?

NORTHAM: President Obama will begin to explore those questions in earnest when he meets with members of his National Security Team. They'll look at what progress has been made, what still needs to be done and how to do it, and how much of a commitment it will require. General McChrystal has reportedly asked for up to 40,000 more U.S. troops.

Terrence Kelly focuses on the Afghanistan issue for the RAND Corporation. He was also part of McChrystal's assessment team. He says the military aspect is only one part of the assessment.

Dr. TERRENCE KELLY (Researches Afghanistan for the RAND Corporation): In order to be successful there at all, the Afghan people have to support the Afghan government. Right now, that's a challenge. And I think the real question for the U.S. going forward is whether or not this government, the Karzai government, will ever be acceptable to the Afghan people.

NORTHAM: Kelly says without a legitimate government, it's hard for the U.S. to tackle other issues in Afghanistan, such as building a legal system and fighting corruption. Given that, there appear to be divisions among administration officials about what difference adding more troops would make.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, appear to favor adding more soldiers. Vice President Joe Biden wants to slim down the military presence. Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell has told the president that the U.S. needs a clear definition of the mission before any decision about sending more troops.

Steve Clemons with the New America Foundation says President Obama will listen to a multitude of opinions.

Mr. STEVE CLEMONS (New America Foundation): The downside of that sort of approach is you've got the administration internally at war with itself and tugging in different directions.

NORTHAM: Clemons says this can send mixed signals to the troops and commanders on the ground in Afghanistan and do little to slow the waning support for the war amongst the public and Congress, or tamp down the pressure to show progress.

Jeremy Shapiro is a fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and was also part of McChrystal's assessment team. He says reexamining the goals for Afghanistan is a good idea, but it probably won't produce any dramatic changes to the main elements of the strategy already in place.

Mr. JEREMY SHAPIRO (Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institute): I think the people really like to focus on the strategy, and they love to say, you know, well, we need a strategy. It's not the case that we haven't had a strategy. It's the case that the strategy hasn't been well implemented, it hasn't been well resourced and it hasn't worked.

NORTHAM: Shapiro says a reassessment of the strategy might give people confidence that the administration and military have new ideas. Administration officials say there is no deadline to complete the review, and that General McChrystal's request for resources won't be formally handed over to President Obama until he asks for it.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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