September 21, 2009 / 8:20 PM / 8 years ago

Moment of truth nears for Obama on Afghan war

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The leaking of a U.S. military report of the war in Afghanistan piles more pressure on President Barack Obama, already squeezed by ebbing public support and skepticism in his own party over troop levels.

U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal's assessment, published in The Washington Post on Monday, underlines a growing urgency in the military.

Obama had been seeking more time before deciding whether to commit additional resources or update an overall strategy mapped out in March, but the leak may force him to make some extremely tough decisions very soon.

"The moment of truth is arriving for what we want to do with Afghanistan," said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution. "Politically, this puts enormous pressure on the president to increase the number of resources."

Consumed by the healthcare debate and U.S. economic woes, Obama may be reluctant to move quickly on Afghanistan, particularly in trying to win over hesitant lawmakers, especially those of his own party whose support he needs on his bulging domestic agenda.

Quite how Obama will react to the report by the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, which he has been studying since the end of last month, remains to be seen.

In an interview on Sunday with ABC, Obama conceded he was himself a "skeptical audience" when it came to the issue of deciding whether to send in more troops or resources.

And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointedly described the report as a "classified pre-decisional memo" in comments on Monday to reporters in New York.

"We are looking to integrate everything we are doing. And of course then the president will make his decision," she said.

The assessment warned failure to gain the initiative in Afghanistan in the next 12 months risked an outcome where defeating the insurgency was "no longer possible."

"The one point of tension here I think is the dimension of urgency and whether or not delay jeopardizes the mission in some way," said Juan Carlos Zarate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy national security advisor from 2005 to 2009.

"This puts the president and Congress both on notice and a bit in a box to act with a bit more urgency than perhaps they would have otherwise wanted."

Experts said the timing of the leak of the report could be aimed at bolstering the case of military commanders who feel Obama could face an even more difficult task in the months ahead if opinion polls turn more negative.

"If you feel the tide of opinion is going against you in terms of an American commitment, you want to get the commitment from him (Obama) as soon as possible," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department analyst on Afghanistan and Pakistan, now with the Middle East Institute.

The call for more troops is opposed by some left-leaning members of Obama's own Democratic Party, whose support the president needs to overhaul health care.

REPUBLICAN PRESSURE BUILDS

Leading Republicans counter that Obama needs to decide soon on troop levels. They will be quick to label Obama as pandering to his "liberal" supporters if he does not act quickly.

Arizona Sen. John McCain said on Monday any delay to send additional forces would endanger the lives of the 68,000 American troops serving in Afghanistan.

"As soon as the decision is made, the sooner we can implement a strategy that will allow us to reverse the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan," said McCain, the losing Republican candidate for the presidency last year and a Vietnam War hero.

But the plea for more forces is complicated by charges of fraud and rigging in last month's presidential elections in Afghanistan, and divisions within the Obama administration over how to handle that.

Incumbent President Hamid Karzai is expected to be declared the winner, but it could take weeks or months before a final outcome is known, particularly if there is a second round.

Riedel said that in an ideal world the Obama administration would prefer to wait until the election became clearer but this was becoming harder to do.

"What Gen. McChrystal is saying is that time is not our friend, that the enemy is resourceful and agile," said Riedel, who oversaw March's review on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

McChrystal's assessment of the Afghan government's performance was scathing, saying corruption was as much a threat as the insurgency to international efforts there.

When the U.S. public's focus was on the Iraq conflict, Afghanistan was seen as a "good war", but more questions were being asked about why eight years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States was still in Afghanistan.

"The political reality is that U.S. citizens don't like the war and that there are divisions within the (U.S. Democratic) party and that there is increasing dissatisfaction with the standard answers of why we are there," said Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University.

Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Susan Cornwell in Washington and Lou Charbonneau in New York; Editing by Simon Denyer and Philip Barbara

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