Obama Nears Decision On Afghanistan Troops

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks to Michele Norris about President Obama's upcoming decision on whether to add tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And Im Melissa Block.

President Obama marked Veterans Day today by laying a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery. He said, for veterans today is a day of memories, for troops at the front, its another day in harms way. And he continued.

President BARACK OBAMA: For our wounded warriors, it is another day of slow and arduous recovery. And in this national cemetery, it is another day when grief remains fresh.

NORRIS: After he spoke, Mr. Obama made an unannounced stop at a section of the cemetery where troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. The president spent about 15 minutes wandering among the headstones. Then he returned to the White House, and to one of the hardest decisions of his presidency. He met with his national security team to weigh sending more troops in the harms way in Afghanistan.

NPRs defense correspondent, Mary Louise Kelly, joins us now in the studio. And Mary Louise, today was the eighth straight strategy session. Is that correct, eighth now?

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Thats correct, eighth.

NORRIS: And the president what the president has worked on - so hes been criticized for taking so long to make this decision about how to proceed with the war in Afghanistan. Does it appear that hes now nearing the end of this process?

KELLY: It does. Hes apparently close and thats the message thats the message were getting both from White House and military officials. Were told still not to expect any sort of formal announcement until later in the month, perhaps Thanksgiving week. But they are getting closer and they have now narrowed it to four options. Significantly, all of the options involve sending troops. So, it is now no longer a question of will more U.S. forces go to Afghanistan, but how many and what are they going to do when get there.

NORRIS: So, they have now these four options. What do we know about those options?

KELLY: So, the four options - lets start with the high end, which, according to an administration official who we spoke to, would be to send about 40,000 additional troops. Thats what General McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has asked for. Thats what he says he needs to pull off a successful counterinsurgency mission there. The next level down the next option would apparently involve sending almost that many but not quite, maybe 34 or 35,000 troops. And theres some hope that NATO allies might actually make up the difference, nudge it back up close to 40,000.

Descending from there, there is a third option, would involved 15-20,000 troops. The implication there is you couldnt really do a proper counterinsurgency strategy, but you could do a narrower counterterrorism-focused mission. And then were told the fourth option on the table would be to send a low end, something like 10,000 troops. If you did that, they would all be focused on training, so trying to get Afghanistans police and security forces up to speed where they could take over security themselves.

NORRIS: Mary Louise, you mentioned the hope that NATO allies might step up their effort. Is that is there really a realistic chance of that happening?

KELLY: Well, it would certainly be an uphill battle, not least because public opinion in Europe, if anything, is more opposed to the war in Afghanistan than here in the United States. I mean, several countries have already announced they are planning to pull their troops out - the Canadians, the Dutch, for example. That said, the secretary general of NATO gave an interview today to the BBC in which he said he expects allies will, and this is his words, step up to the plate. That they would provide more resources in particular to help with this mission of training Afghanistan security forces.

If they did that, then that would nudge the total number of troops closer perhaps to the 40,000 that General McChrystal has called for and there was a real push to try to do that. The reason is less actually to do with on the ground. I mean, the difference between 34,000 troops - 40,000 troops - probably not enough to swing it and be decisive one way or the other. It is significant politically because it would get President Obama closer to what his top commander is asking for. And Im sure he doesnt want to be seen as shortchanging his four-star general on the ground.

NORRIS: Regardless of the number of troops that the president may or may not decide on in the option he chooses, help us understand the timeline if he does send more troops. How long would that take?

KELLY: Well, typically the military says it takes at least 90 days to deploy after a decision is made. And, of course, preparations on the ground have to be made to absorb those troops coming in. So, there is a time lag there. That said, military officers Ive spoken to say, we need a decision, not just on the ground, but we - just the symbolism of the announcement. The U.S. showing resolve and commitment to the fight. That will be decisive in and of itself.

NORRIS: Thank you very much.

KELLY: Youre welcome.

NORRIS: That was Mary Louise Kelly, NPRs defense correspondent.

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