WASHINGTON, Oct 5 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama faces key decisions in the coming weeks on the war in Afghanistan, where insurgent violence has reached its highest level since the Taliban was ousted from power in late 2001.
On one side of the White House debate are proposals to send 30,000 to 40,000 additional troops and trainers as part of a beefed-up counterinsurgency strategy advocated by the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
On the other side are proposals, backed by Vice President Joe Biden, to narrow the mission in Afghanistan and concentrate instead on attacking al Qaeda targets along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and in Pakistan itself.
Obama could opt for a hybrid approach, officials said, whereby the administration would increase the number of troops in Afghanistan by a more modest amount and at the same time push for a more concerted campaign against al Qaeda and Taliban "safe havens" along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and within Pakistani territory.
Washington has 65,000 troops in Afghanistan and that figure is expected to reach 68,000 later this year. Other nations, mainly NATO allies, have some 39,000 troops in the country.
The following are some possible courses of action Obama could choose to adopt:
BIG TROOP INCREASE
Top Republicans in Congress and some analysts believe the Afghan war effort is under-resourced despite this year’s troop increases and requires a further big boost in military forces.
They have thrown their support behind McChrystal, who in a confidential assessment warned policymakers that the war would end in failure without additional troops and changes in strategy aimed at gaining the trust of the Afghan people.
But signing off on a 30,000 to 40,000 troop increase would be politically difficult for Obama due to the unease within his own Democratic party and fatigue among the American public after eight years of war in Afghanistan and six in Iraq.
It would also raise concerns among U.S. officials that Afghans will see NATO and U.S. forces as hostile occupiers if their presence is too large. Gates has in the past voiced this concern, although he has since said he accepts McChrystal’s argument that Afghans’ perceptions will be driven more by how the troops behave than their numbers.
MODERATE TROOP INCREASE
Obama could decide to add around 10,000 to 15,000 troops to provide more combat power and increase the training of Afghan forces. McChrystal’s predecessor, U.S. Army General David McKiernan, had already signaled he wanted some 10,000 extra troops in 2010.
With the insurgency still strong in the south, regaining ground in the east and making new inroads in other parts of the country, the request for a moderate increase in troops may now be seen by military officers as the very minimum required. Politically, this option would provoke some opposition within Obama’s party but probably not enough to make the administration change course.
While Biden is the leading proponent of narrowing the mission in Afghanistan, he may not be the only skeptic at the White House when it comes to another troop surge.
National security adviser James Jones has made clear that more options are being considered.
Some analysts and commentators have argued that U.S. forces should withdraw from Afghanistan and stop devoting large amounts of resources to nation-building and fighting Taliban militants. Influential conservative columnist George Will voiced support for this option last month, arguing the United States should "do only what can be done from offshore."
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates has rejected the notion the war could be fought from a distance and dismissed talk of a U.S. military withdrawal as out of the question.
McChrystal, in a speech in London last week, said such a strategy would probably be short sighted.
Some officials and analysts said a moderate increase in troop levels could be paired with a stepped-up counterterrorism strategy, in partnership with Islamabad, to root out al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in Pakistan.
Pakistan has mobilized its forces to launch a long awaited ground offensive against Taliban militants in their South Waziristan stronghold near the Afghan border.
Washington wants Islamabad to target "all insurgents" — not just those threatening its power but also groups leading the fight against NATO in neighboring Afghanistan.
Obama could decide to maintain the U.S. troop level at around 68,000. That figure represents an increase of about 36,000 since the start of the year.
(Reporting by Adam Entous and Andrew Gray; Editing by Patricia Wilson and Philip Barbara)