Afghan War Strategy Meeting One Of Many

The war council met with President Obama for three hours. It was one of five meetings that will discuss Afghan war strategy. Wednesday's meeting was a review of what has happened over the last eight years. Those in the room have to decide whether to support the recommendation to increase U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And we're looking at a photograph of one of those meetings last night, where we see many of the same people you just mentioned, Tom, sitting around the table with President Obama at the head of the table, speaking. And let's bring another voice into the conversation - NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, Good morning.

DON GONYEA: Morning.

INSKEEP: What happened last night?

GONYEA: This was a three-hour meeting. Again, all of the principals were there in this basement, windowless Situation Room at the White House. General McChrystal was not present but was there via secure video connection from Afghanistan. It was one of five meetings that they are going to have.

Now, they have already had one. But again, this one had a much broader array of participants - a dozen participants in all. There will be another one October 7th. And Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, says that a decision is weeks away - not months away - weeks away.

But yesterday seems to have been more of a review of the past eight years -where we are right now. Again, laying the groundwork for these future meetings. Where we are again militarily and diplomatically in Pakistan was in the mix as well.

INSKEEP: Tom Gjelten, as they get to the question of what to do next, it would be easy to assume the question is do you stay or do you go. But it sounds like there's really a finer distinction here about the scope of the mission if you do stay.

GJELTEN: Steve, implicit in this discussion is a review of a very important assumption, which is that if the Taliban were to return to power in Afghanistan back as they were in 2001, it would disastrous, it would mean that al-Qaida could reestablish itself and once again pose a threat to the United States from Afghanistan.

Implicit in these discussions is the question: is that true? Is - there is now a readiness to test that assumption and to question that assumption, and that is a major new development. It really calls into question the whole premise of the operation in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: You're saying that there are some people in this conference room that…

GJELTEN: Yes.

INSKEEP: …that we have the photograph of who are wondering maybe we don't care who runs Afghanistan, maybe it's not as dangerous as we thought. Is that what you're saying?

GJELTEN: The question has been raised. I don't think there's anyone who's willing to say it quite that plainly, Steve, but that assumption is being tested.

INSKEEP: Let me ask another question to you, Don Gonyea. Do people in this conference room at the White House assume that the United States is stuck with the Afghan government no matter how bad and that the United States needs to support that government no matter how bad?

GONYEA: They know that they are stuck with this government. The degree to which they support them is what is on the table and is what is being discussed. Now, it's no surprise to the people in this room that there were problems with the election in Afghanistan, but there was certainly a hope that things would not be quite as bad as they have played out.

So what has happened, what we have learned in the last month, in the aftermath of that election, does complicate this, does make it more difficult.

INSKEEP: Are there real differences, Tom Gjelten, between the people in that room?

GJELTEN: There certainly are. I mean, I mention in my story the position of Vice President Biden, which is probably - he's the most skeptical on this team. The - Secretary of State Clinton and Richard Holbrooke are responsible and their team are responsible for building civilian capacity in Afghanistan.

That really does require security, so they're more inclined to support additional U.S. troops. The big question is Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. He has, clearly, questions about a larger U.S. troop presence, but he is also very skeptical that this counterterrorism approach identified with Vice President Biden would work.

INSKEEP: Is Vice President Biden, in some sense, simply displaying that there is an examination of all the options by letting it be known that he's this skeptical?

GJELTEN: Well, the people in the White House insist that this is not a pre-cooked decision. This is - the decision has not been made, minds have not been settled in that sense. But nevertheless, you're right. I mean, the fact that President Obama is listening to other voices now in a sense does give him a little bit more latitude in responding to the general's request.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten. And Don Gonyea, thanks to you.

GONYEA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And we'll continue to bring you more information as we learn it.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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