Obama's Afghan War Decision: A Team Of Rivals President Obama has ordered 30,000 more troops into battle in Afghanistan. The escalation is meant to be as rapid as possible, but the process that brought the president to this point wasn't rapid at all. It was lengthy and deliberate — and it had many twists and turns.

Obama's Afghan War Decision: A Team Of Rivals

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

The deployment of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan is meant to take place as rapidly as possible. But the process that brought President Obama to this point was not rapid - it was lengthy and deliberate.

Now we have the story of how the decision was made from two of our reporters who covered it from different vantage points: Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: That President Obama was willing to escalate the war in Afghanistan was no secret. In fact, it was his policy and his preference since before he took office. During the campaign, he was one of many Democrats who saw Afghanistan as the good war. The war in Iraq was the bad war, a waste of blood and treasure. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama went even further, excoriating President Bush for taking his eye off the ball.

President BARACK OBAMA: And that is why, as president, I will make the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war we have to win.

LIASSON: For some Democrats, supporting the fight in Afghanistan was a way to deflect the old soft-on-national-security charge against their party. But unlike other Democrats, Mr. Obama never abandoned his belief that Afghanistan was the necessary war. After he took office, the president announced a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida.

Pres. OBAMA: That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you.

LIASSON: In that March speech, the president said he was sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Even then his generals wanted more. On a visit to Afghanistan in June, his national security adviser, Jim Jones, warned the commanders not to ask for more troops so soon. If they did, Jones said, using a salty abbreviation, the president would have a whiskey tango foxtrot moment -as in: What the...

But by then, the president had already asked his brand new general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, to assess the situation on the ground.

TOM BOWMAN: This is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates picked McChrystal because he was unhappy with the way things were going in Afghanistan. Security was deteriorating. The commander there had asked for more troops, but given little sense of how they'd be used. So Gates, together with the nation's top military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, handed the mission to their top aides: General McChrystal and Lieutenant General David Rodriguez.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): I think that they will provide the kind of new leadership and fresh thinking that the admiral and I have been talking about.

BOWMAN: The fresh thinking: McChrystal offered it to the White House in a classified assessment, and then that document was leaked to the press. It warned that the war could be lost without more U.S. forces. And McChrystal asked for those forces, as many as 80,000 new troops, as few as 12,000.

After his plan and troop request landed at the White House, McChrystal heard nothing for weeks. That's because there was turmoil in Washington. Democrats balked. The Obama administration seriously considered sending no new troops at all. They also looked at an idea pushed by Vice President Joe Biden: Limit American troops in Afghanistan and use drone aircraft to kill al-Qaida in Pakistan. McChrystal was asked in London whether that plan made sense.

General STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (Commander, U.S. Army): The short, glib answer is no. A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted strategy.

BOWMAN: That comment got McChrystal into trouble with the White House. A day later, President Obama summoned McChrystal. They met aboard Air Force One in Copenhagen. Some thought it was a dressing-down. But the president backed his general and later told lawmakers: He's my hand-picked guy.

McChrystal stopped speaking publicly. But his boss didn't. Admiral Mullen told Congress that he endorsed McChrystal's recommendations.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff): I do believe that having heard his views and having great confidence in his leadership, a properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces.

BOWMAN: The military brass was lining up in favor of more forces. Some in the White House were feeling boxed in. The debate was on.

LIASSON: The White House decision-making process was, by design, methodical and thorough. The president's war council met 10 times over three months. There were leaks, which infuriated Secretary Gates, particularly when it became known that the ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, opposed the troop buildup. The president wasn't pleased either, as he told CBS News.

Pres. OBAMA: I think I'm probably angrier than Bob Gates about it. Partly because, you know, we have these deliberations in the Situation Room for a reason: Because we are making decisions that are life and death.

LIASSON: In some cases, White House officials questioned in public the assumptions behind McChrystal's recommendation. By doing so they were giving voice to the views of Democrats in Congress who opposed any escalation. And they were sending an important political message that the president wouldn't just rubber-stamp the general's request.

Here's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on CBS expressing doubts that the president shared, about the legitimacy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Mr. RAHM EMANUEL (Chief of Staff, White House): And the question is, do you have a credible partner that could then fill that space that we're asking the American troops to create?

LIASSON: In the end, the president decided he had no choice but to work with Karzai.

By settling on the number of troops Secretary Gates had recommended in October, President Obama was siding with the Pentagon and rejecting the view of his Vice President Joe Biden, who had favored a more targeted strategy.

Here's Biden this week on NBC.

Vice President JOSEPH BIDEN: I was skeptical of taking our eye off the ball. The ball is al-Qaida. That's the reason we're there. They are in Pakistan. The Taliban leadership is in Pakistan. And I wanted to make sure that the focus stayed on those two elements of our concern and didn't sort of morph into a nation-building exercise that would tie us down for 10 years.

LIASSON: But in the end, the president's team of rivals were all on board. His strategy was an Obama-style balance: A bigger footprint than the vice president and others wanted, but the mission's objectives had been minimized. The Taliban would be degraded, not destroyed. There would be no nation-building. And there would be a date to begin a drawdown.

Throughout it all, Republicans complained about how long it took the president to decide. Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused him of dithering. At West Point, Mr. Obama defended his process.

Pres. OBAMA: Now, let me be clear: There has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010. So there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war during this review period. Instead, the review has allowed me to ask the hard questions and to explore all the different options.

LIASSON: And after all the hard questions were asked and all the premises were challenged, the president called his war council into the Oval Office on Sunday at 5 p.m. and told them what he had decided: A swifter ramp-up of troop strength - what the president called moving the bell curve to the left - in hopes of quickly improving the Afghans' ability to take over. He had put his own stamp on the general's request. In the Oval Office, the president issued the order to implement his strategy immediately.

BOWMAN: So now the mission was back in the hands of the generals, even as the president spoke to the nation at West Point, the Marines had begun moving equipment by sea to Afghanistan.

General McChrystal and General David Petraeus, the commander of all U.S. forces in the region, had made the case in those White House meetings: The U.S. must hit the Taliban hard and hit them fast.

At West Point, it was clear the president had been persuaded.

Pres. OBAMA: We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

BOWMAN: That's the only way U.S. troops can leave. General McChrystal said it would take 400,000 Afghan troops to secure their country. The White House and Pentagon doubt it's possible to train in-field that many.

So having conducted a disciplined debate for months, the president now finds his strategy depends on forces he cannot control: Afghanistan's government and its military.

I'm Tom Bowman.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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