MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A problem that the president is working through right now is what to do about the war in Afghanistan. Aides say Mr. Obama still hasn't made a decision about the best way forward. But it's now looking unlikely that he will back the major troop increase requested by his top commander in Afghanistan. Still, more troops may be sent to Afghanistan, as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Signs that President Obama is narrowing down his options on Afghanistan started emerging early this week. On Monday, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs informed reporters pulling out of Afghanistan is off the table.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): I don't think we have the option to leave. I think that's quite clear.
KELLY: On the other end of the spectrum, administration sources say the president is leaning against a dramatic escalation in the U.S. commitment. General Stanley McChrystal, the Obama administration's handpicked commander for the war, has submitted a request calling for up to 40,000 additional troops. NPR asked about that at today's White House briefing.
Mr. GIBBS: The president hasn't discussed the resource request with his team yet. Obviously, a decision at some point will be forthcoming.
KELLY: What President Obama appears to be steering towards is middle ground - a troop increase, but perhaps not all 40,000, something more in the range of 10,000 or 20,000 new troops. As for the overall strategy, the Obama administration is apparently considering narrowing the mission in Afghanistan, focusing more tightly on al-Qaida and downgrading the emphasis on the Taliban. These two ideas work in tandem. If you redefine a mission and narrow it, then you need fewer troops and other resources to get the job done. Depending on where you sit this could look like smart politics or it could look like a compromise that tries too hard to please everyone.
Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution): There are ways to do middle ground which make sense. There are ways to do middle ground that ends up just being half measures.
KELLY: That's Bruce Riedel. He is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
KELLY: Riedel also led the president's strategy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan back in the spring. Riedel argues that for years, the U.S. trying to wage the war in Afghanistan on the cheap. Now, he says there's a danger to not going all in and giving military commanders the resources they say they need to win.
Mr. RIEDEL: Halfway measures, which may be politically more sellable, may only postpone the inevitable hard decisions and make them harder to do when you get there.
KELLY: That's a point echoed in General McChrystal's own assessment of the war. McChrystal writes that, quote, "failure to provide adequate resources risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs and, ultimately, a critical loss of public support." Of course, if President Obama ends up redefining the mission to one that needs fewer resources, that may mitigate some of the military's concerns. And going with a low or mid-level option on troops now doesn't rule out adding more forces down the road, says Mark Moyar, a counterinsurgency expert at the Marine Corps University. But, Moyar says that's less than ideal from General McChrystal's point of view.
Mr. MARK MOYAR (Counterinsurgency Expert, Marine Corps University): The thing is it takes quite a while to actually get these people over there once they're approved. So, I think he does really see a sense of urgency to get it done now.
KELLY: There's also a sense of urgency about the announcement of a new strategy. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said this will be among the most important decisions Mr. Obama will make as president, and he needs to take the time to get it right, which is well and good, says Bruce Riedel.
Mr. RIEDEL: There's a delicate line between rethinking and dithering. And that's the line that I think the president needs, above all, to avoid.
KELLY: Here's another way of looking at it: In his assessment of the war, General McChrystal said he saw a 12-month window, that after 12 months it might no longer be possible to defeat the insurgency. That report was dated August 30th. We're now inside 11 months and counting.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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