Obama's Advisers Divided On Afghan War
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
President Obama says Afghanistan is a war of necessity. Now he has to decide how to fight it. And at the White House yesterday he discussed the options with his Afghanistan war council.
INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten has been following the president's advisors and he reports this morning on who favors sending more troops and who does not.
TOM GJELTEN: First, the military view. General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, says the effort there will fail without more U.S. forces on the ground. That assessment is backed by President Obama's top military advisor, Admiral Michael Mullen, and by General David Petraeus, the commander of all U.S. forces from the Middle East to central Asia. On this issue the military speaks with one voice. And President Obama needs to keep that in mind, says retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor.
Professor PETER MANSOOR (Ohio State University): If President Obama decides that he's going to override the advice - the best military advice of his commanders in the field, then he owns the outcome of the conflict.
GJELTEN: Of course at this point President Obama will probably be held responsible for the outcome in Afghanistan no matter what. The war is increasingly unpopular. Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Vietnam veteran, says President Obama has an obligation to listen to all his advisors, including those ready to challenge his generals.
Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): You have to talk to everybody, and shame on you if you don't reach out for countering opinions and different thoughts. You don't want a lot of yes people who are there to, you know, serve the pleasure of a wrong choice.
GJELTEN: President Obama clearly does not have all yes people on his team. The chief skeptic: Vice President Joe Biden. Aides says he fully supports the president's overall goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida, but Biden wonders whether countering the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is really key to that effort. If the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan were narrowed around a counter-terrorism mission, would more U.S. forces still be necessary? Aides say Biden is only asking. He has not made up his mind.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is playing his cards close to his chest. He's hinted that a larger U.S. footprint in Afghanistan could bring trouble. But on ABC last Sunday he pointed out that even a mission focused on al-Qaida would still require a significant number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): The people that I've talked to in the Pentagon who are the experts on counter-terrorism essentially say that counter-terrorism is only possible if you have the kind of intelligence that allows you to target the terrorists. And the only way you get that intelligence is by being on the ground.
GJELTEN: Here is another consideration. More counter-terrorism operations could require more air strikes against al-Qaida targets. But air strikes could mean more civilian casualties. Under the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, winning civilian hearts and minds is crucial. But even around this point there is debate. Critics of the current U.S. approach in Afghanistan say it was premised on there being a credible Afghan government partner. Administration officials hoped the August elections in Afghanistan would produce that partner. Instead they were tainted by allegations of fraud.
This is where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan, come in. Their teams have largely been focused on improving the civilian situation and strengthening the Afghan government. And aides say they are not ready to give up. On CBS this week, Secretary Clinton took pains not to judge the Afghanistan election process too harshly.
Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): This is not like an election, you know, in Western Europe or in the United States. To carry out an election under these circumstances was going to be difficult under any conditions.
GJELTEN: If President Obama finds a new way forward in Afghanistan, it could be by identifying some middle ground: focus the U.S. strategy a bit more narrowly on counter-terrorism but maintain a large U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan so as not to rely too much on air power. Don't give up on the Afghan government entirely, but make fighting al-Qaida the top priority. The problem is, in Afghanistan there may be no middle ground. Peter Mansoor, now a professor at Ohio State, previously served under General Petraeus.
Prof. MANSOOR: Any sort of move towards a counter-terrorist mission will end up pushing away our Afghan allies. And they may end up saying if you're not here to protect us, we don't want you here at all.
GJELTEN: No easy answers, Steve. So these meetings among President Obama's advisors are likely to raise some real challenging questions.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten in our studios this morning.
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