Lawmakers, Officials Press Obama On Afghanistan
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President Obama is yet to say how he might shift his strategy in Afghanistan. He is giving clues to what he won't do. The president says he's not going to substantially reduce the troop levels or the mission.
INSKEEP: Now there's the question of whether he will send more forces to accomplish that mission. We begin our coverage this morning with NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who's been following developments at the White House. Mara, Good morning.
MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So the president is essentially saying, explicitly, look, we're not pulling back. What are the implications of that?
LIASSON: Well, the implications of that are that he's going to decide if more troops are necessary on top of the 68,000 that hes already committed, and if so, how many? There has been this notion of a counterterrorism strategy as opposed to a counterinsurgency strategy where the focus is on more surgical strikes, predator drone strikes against al-Qaida.
Vice President Joseph Biden has been pushing that. And in yesterday's meeting, the president tried to clarify that saying counterterrorism doesnt mean predator drone strikes alone. It means you build on the number of troops that you've got there and then you step up the drone activity.
INSKEEP: Well, let's think about that, because he's essentially saying there's going to be a large American commitment to Afghanistan. It's going to remain for sometime and that raises a lot of questions, one of them being how is the president going to build or rebuild political support for a war that many Americans are coming to doubt?
LIASSON: Well, first he's going to make a decision about the troop levels and the strategy. And then he's going to have to sell it. And he's going to have to sell it particularly to his own party. A part of that sales job will probably include sending top military officials to brief Congress - after he's made the decision, not before - as many Republicans have been demanding.
And it is going to be a sales job, but I think once first, he has to decide what he wants to do, what kind of commitment of troops he thinks will best accomplish the mission, and then he's going to have to go out and sell it.
INSKEEP: Now, of course the president met with Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress yesterday, as part of his consultations here as he prepares to deal with his strategy. And we're going to hear what Democratic and Republican leaders said afterwards. And let's bear in mind, Mara, what you said about having to sell this war to his own party.
Here's NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna.
DAVID WELNA: Leading lawmakers trooped over to the White House in the middle of the afternoon and spent more than an hour with President Obama. According to participants, they listened, they asked questions, and members from both parties weighed in themselves on the war that today turned eight years old.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal has been pressing for up to 40,000 additional troops, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came out defending the fact that Mr. Obama is not considering that request at this point.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Its very clear that the president's heading the right direction, strategy before resources. That was discussion, time after time, in that meeting.
WELNA: Reid also reported expressions of bipartisan support for the president at the closed door session.
Sen. REID: The one thing that I think was interesting is that everyone, Democrats and Republicans, said whatever decision you make we'll support it -basically.
WELNA: Reid's assertion of unquestioning support seemed to come as a bit of a surprise, though, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Just last month, Pelosi declared she did not think there was a great deal of support - either in the country or in Congress - for sending more troops to Afghanistan. With Reid at her side, Pelosi gave a far less upbeat assessment of President Obama's prospects for Congress supporting whatever he decides on.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California, Speaker of the House): Whether we agreed with it or voted for it remains to be seen when we see what the president puts forward.
WELNA: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for his part, stated that he and his fellow Republicans would be able to make their own decisions regarding Afghanistan.
Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): We have confidence in General Petraeus and General McChrystal. And if they're on board, I would think that a significant number of our members will be as well.
WELNA: That was seconded by House Minority Leader John Boehner. He said Republicans in the lower chamber would support Mr. Obama as long as the president's goal continued to be denying a safe haven in Afghanistan for al-Qaida and the Taliban. Boehner had not been to the White House since last spring and he'd earlier expressed impatience with the president's ongoing deliberations over the strategy for Afghanistan. But yesterday's meeting seemed to mollify Boehner's criticism of the president.
Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): We do recognize that he has a tough decision and he wants ample time to make a good decision. Frankly, I support that.
WELNA: President Obama's one time rival for his job was also at yesterday's meeting. As the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Arizona's John McCain has been outspoken in his support for General McChrystal's call for more U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan. And he remains so after seeing the president.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I'm very convinced that General McChrystal's analysis is not only correct but should be employed as quickly as possible.
WELNA: McCain has also been calling for General McChrystal to testify before Congress. He said he did not press that demand on the president yesterday, but House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who also met with the president, told reporters that he too thinks McChrystal should come to Capitol Hill.
Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland): I continue to believe and recommend that General McChrystal, at some point in time in the relatively near future before we make any determination as to what we should do, testify before the Congress and brief the Congress perhaps in an executive session, if that's necessary, but also testify before the Congress.
WELNA: But other leading congressional Democrats oppose any appearance here by the top Afghanistan commander before President Obama makes a decision about troop levels. It's a reflection of deeper divisions in the Democratic Party over an increasingly deadly war that's clearly lost public support.
Republicans, meanwhile, seem united in pushing the president to be like his GOP predecessor and bow to what his field commanders ask for.
INSKEEP: That's NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. And NPR's Mara Liasson is still with us this morning. And let's pick up on that disaffection among Democrats that David Welna mentioned. Mara, you talk to these folks almost every day. How deep is the disaffection among President Obama's own party?
LIASSON: I think there's a tremendous skepticism about escalating the war in Afghanistan. I don't think it's the kind of implacable opposition that would oppose him for putting any additional troops in. I think he has to explain why he's doing it.
You have somebody like the Armed Services chairman in the Senate, Karl Levin, who wants to focus on training the Afghan army. He wants a commitment to that before we send any more troops. I think the president certainly could satisfy him.
I don't think you're seeing a kind of impending revolt in the Democratic Party, but it's going to be tough. I mean, where the president is going to find support, if he decides to send more troops in, is among Republicans, who have been his opponents on almost everything else.
That's one of the reasons he invited everybody up to the White House yesterday. I think he's making the point, as he does often, that he is doing this in a way, opposite the way President George W. Bush did it. He's listening to a lot of people, he's listening to his commanders on the ground, he's also getting a lot of input from Congress. There's no rush to judgment here.
INSKEEP: Okay. And we also heard the phrase - strategy before resources -figure out what you want to do before making a decision about troop levels. What are the next steps in figuring out the strategy?
LIASSON: Well, he's scheduled a series of five-minute meetings with his national security team. Today's is going to be the third in a series. The two last week focused on the situation on the ground there. Today's is going to focus on Pakistan. Friday's meeting is going to focus on Afghanistan.
Once they get a clear idea of what's actually happening there and the assumptions that they think are correct - they've been reexamining a lot of assumptions, the White House officials say; examining a lot of myths - they have to decide where it's best to prosecute al-Qaida - Pakistan or Afghanistan. What happens if the Taliban returns to Afghanistan? Does that automatically mean that al-Qaida returns?
Once they get the answers to those kinds of threshold questions, then they can decide how many troops are needed to accomplish the mission.
INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much.
LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, speaking with us on this Wednesday when President Obama is meeting again with his national security team on Afghanistan. It is the eighth anniversary of the start of the fighting there.
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