President Obama's problem, as one observer put it, is that he has to commit money and manpower he doesn't have to prop up an Afghan leader he doesn't believe in, in pursuit of a goal he hasn't defined.
The president may have thought he could buy time for contemplation by scheduling a series of five private sessions with his national security team. But he got some transparency he didn't want when someone, probably military, leaked to The Washington Post the 66-page report of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The report warned of disaster in Afghanistan in the absence of more troops and a more comprehensive strategy.
McChrystal then made his point in a public address in London, and was summoned to Copenhagen for what must have been a tense 25-minute meeting with the president.
This will not be a Truman-MacArthur confrontation. McChrystal has said he will abide by the president's decision. But he has already had his effect. The uniformed military is concerned about the safety of troops spread too thin.
The internal debate at the moment appears to center on two opposing concepts: counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Counterterrorism is counterinsurgency "lite." It concentrates on going after al-Qaida and emphasizes air operations. Counterinsurgency aims to rid Afghanistan of Taliban control and protect the population — a big operation.
One decision has apparently been made: The United States is not pulling out of Afghanistan, or making any substantial reduction in force. After that, the administration is caught between those like Sen. John McCain who want a buildup for a surge, and those like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who want fewer American troops in Afghanistan.
Sooner or later, the White House will have to produce some objectives and some numbers. Then the public debate starts — a debate that may be the most daunting test of Obama's presidency so far.