Afghanistan

Afghan Decision Could Shape Obama-Military Ties

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President Obama met Friday with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for the first time since McChrystal's report on the worsening situation in the country. The meeting comes as Obama is considering whether or not to approve a huge troop buildup. His decision could define his relationship with military leaders.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Obama during his quick trip to Copenhagen today squeezed in a meeting with Afghanistan war commander General Stanley McChrystal. Their unannounced session took place aboard Air Force One on the tarmac before the president's flight home. It was General McChrystal's first face-to-face meeting with the president, following his report on the worsening situation in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama is considering whether to approve a huge troop buildup there.

It could define his relationship with military leaders, as NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: Running for president, candidate Obama repeatedly criticized President Bush for launching an unnecessary war in Iraq while neglecting the one that mattered in Afghanistan. Now both wars are his to manage and his top general, McChrystal in Afghanistan, has put some very tough choices on the president's plate.

General STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (Commander, United States Forces Afghanistan): The situation is serious and I choose that word very, very carefully. I also say that neither success nor failure for our endeavor there, in support of the Afghan people in government, can be taken for granted.

GONYEA: That speech in London yesterday came the day after the general made his case for as many as 40,000 more troops to a National Security meeting chaired by the president.

McChrystal, who took over in Afghanistan three months ago has recently been willing to go public. He was on CBS's "60 Minutes" this week, where his answer to a question about how often he talks to President Obama prompted considerable surprise.

David Martin is the interviewer.

Mr. DAVID MARTIN (Correspondent, "60 Minutes"): How often do you talk to the president?

General MCCHRYSTAL: I've talked to the president since I've been here once on a VTC.

Mr. MARTIN: You talked to him once in 70 days.

General MCCHRYSTAL: That's correct.

GONYEA: In Iraq, Mr. Obama's top general is Ray Odierno. Yesterday, he told reporters that he sends the president a report every week, but that he last spoke with him a month ago. He said he feels that is sufficient and he described his message to the president.

General RAY ODIERNO (Commander, Multi-National Force, Iraq): What I want to make sure is we don't lose focus on where we're at in Iraq, and that people understand that we have made some progress and we really have an opportunity here. And I want to make sure that we don't lose that opportunity. And I think that that's the one thing that I try to stress when I come out.

GONYEA: But this month the focus is on Afghanistan. In reaction to McChrystal's request, some inside the administration, including Vice President Biden, are pressing for a different counterterrorism strategy that would require no more troops than are already there.

Eliot Cohen is a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He says if the president says no to a respected battlefield commander, he'll have to have a solid alternative plan for the military and some kind of explanation for the public.

Professor ELIOT COHEN (School of Advanced International Studies): If people come away from this thinking, well, the reason why he cut down the request from 40,000 to 25,000 is to make this more palatable for Nancy Pelosi, he has just created another set of problems for himself. And what's worse, he's created problems for our soldiers in the field.

GONYEA: Cohen notes that people often compare Mr. Obama to President Kennedy: both were elected young and each confronted a big foreign policy crisis early. Kennedy would say no to those who wanted more aggressive military action during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But Cohen suggests a better analogy would be the dilemma of Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam.

Prof. COHEN: He kept on trying to push it to one side so that he could pursue a very aggressive domestic agenda. That's the trap that Obama has to worry about.

GONYEA: Former Republican John Warner, who once served as the secretary of the Navy, notes that U.S. history is replete with conflicts between the White House and military advisers. As for their current deliberations regarding Afghanistan...

Mr. JOHN WARNER (Former Virginia Senator): He's got to make a tough decision and I think he's wise as president to be careful and take his time to receive the advice of all those he deems qualified and could be helpful in making this difficult decision as to whether to add more forces.

GONYEA: Time is exactly what McChrystal and the other generals are saying we don't have in Afghanistan. But the president has planned three more top-level White House meetings for this month while he weighs his options.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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