White House Ponders Afghan Troop Levels

A critical status report by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who leads the Afghan war effort, has the White House reconsidering its options. A leaked portion of the report says the mission is in trouble and U.S. commanders believe they need more troops to have a chance at success. The Obama administration faces difficult decisions.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to Iran's neighbor, Afghanistan. Last week, a leaked report by the top U.S. commander in that country made two things clear: The mission in Afghanistan is facing enormous challenges, and the commander, General Stanley McChrystal, believes more troops are needed. The Obama administration faces a difficult decision. Joining us for some analysis is NPR's Juan Williams. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's begin with a question. Is it clear that the Pentagon is all in favor of more combat troops for Afghanistan?

WILLIAMS: In general, yes. I'd say it's a consensus there. But in a way the consensus hides sort of a Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors menu that's going to be on display in the Situation Room at the White House today, where the president is going to have a first of five meetings on this issue. In that room, of course, you're going to have via video conference General Stanley McChrystal, who's on the ground in Afghanistan. And he has written a report that doesn't specify exactly how many troops he wants. He says he wants more. But it's widely expected that he's going to ask for 40,000 troops to be added to the U.S. forces on the ground there, a force that now amounts to about 68,000.

And remember, President Obama sent an additional 21,000 earlier this year. So these added forces - the reason I say it's going to be sort of a menu of attitudes from within the military - is that some fear that's going to put added stress on the military. And then you have people who are simply supportive of General McChrystal. That would include the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen. And then you have people like General David Petraeus, the Middle East commander, who's also going to be in the meeting. He's the one who launched the surge in Iraq, and he, of course, is an advocate of putting more U.S. forces into Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: What about members of Congress and also military analysts? What's the range of opinion there?

WILLIAMS: Well, now that's really interesting. For example, you get former secretary of state, former four-star General Collin Powell, who's been in the White House talking to President Obama. And his message is before you put added resources in there, let's define the mission. Only then should you talk about putting more forces in.

Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a Vietnam veteran, is saying, look, unless we have some clear sense of what we're out to do there, this could become another Vietnam, another sort of bottomless hole for U.S. resources. Senator Jack Reed, another veteran and -said, you know, the pressure here should be on the commanders to justify the need for putting more American lives at risk, because you have an Afghan government that may not be a reliable partner.

A key part of this discussion is whether or not the U.S. is simply helping to prop up a fraudulent government in the eyes of the Afghan people. And if so, then what is the U.S. really doing?

MONTAGNE: And over at the State Department, you've got Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Now, she's been a backer of the war in Afghanistan.

WILLIAMS: Yes, and to a certain extent sort of hawkish, Renee. She wants to maintain open channels with the Pentagon. She wants her ambassadors on the ground, Richard Holbrooke, who is the special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, to have a voice here. And you know, her attitude is we have to make sure that we are resisting any growth by the Taliban, because if the Taliban really gets its roots set again in Afghanistan, it will become a host then for al-Qaida.

MONTAGNE: Which brings us to the White House itself, where of course the decision will be made.

WILLIAMS: Well, and you have Vice President Biden, who has long been opposed to the idea of simply sending more troops. Vice President Biden has said you've got to have a strong effort against al-Qaida, and that putting more forces into Afghanistan as part of a nation-building effort is not necessary. And of course another element here is domestic support for the war is not great. Most polls show the American people in opposition to putting more forces on the ground and continuing the war effort.

MONTAGNE: NPR news analyst Juan Williams, thanks very much.

President Obama will convene his Afghan war council later today at the White House, as he considers strategy and troop levels in Afghanistan.

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