WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s review of his Afghanistan war strategy has exposed divisions among top aides that will be difficult to reconcile for a president who often gravitates toward middle-ground solutions.
Military commanders and Defense Secretary Robert Gates favor a counterinsurgency strategy that focuses on winning over Afghans, not just killing militants. General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, wants 40,000 more troops to do the job.
On the other side are White House advisers led by Vice President Joe Biden who advocate a narrower mission aimed at rooting out al Qaeda and concentrating heavily on Pakistan, an option that would require little to no change in troop levels.
Obama is thought to be inclined toward a middle course, but some experts warn that simply splitting the difference between the two sides could be worst path of all.
“What matters now is the quality of the decision. The strategy must hold together and make sense,” said Brookings Institution military expert Michael O’Hanlon.
The divisions have unnerved some U.S. allies in Kabul and Islamabad and could open a rift between Obama and the military, which was caught off guard by the broad White House review.
Republicans have criticized Obama’s deliberations as too lengthy and say the delays risk emboldening the Taliban.
But the president’s advisers bristle at attempts by Republicans to parody Obama as a modern-day Hamlet.
A deliberative style is an Obama trademark on issues from national security to the economy, though the White House is frustrated by media leaks that have thrust internal debate on Afghanistan into public view.
Earlier this year, debates within the administration on how to rescue the economy sometimes lasted hours, but Obama tended to rely on his senior aides to work out a compromise.
This time, he is taking a more hands-on approach to one of the biggest foreign policy issues of his presidency, and says he is asking tough questions. The next in a series of meetings to review strategy takes place on Wednesday.
McChrystal thinks a narrower mission that focuses mainly on al Qaeda would probably not work, highlighting the difficulty of any attempt to find a middle ground.
Gates has yet to endorse McChrystal’s request for more troops, but his public comments suggest he is leaning in favor and sees a pullback from a counterinsurgency as too risky.
It is unclear how much sway Biden will have. His call to refocus the mission on attacking al Qaeda in Pakistan and along the Afghan border area has gained traction among Obama’s political advisers, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies program, said that given a growing insurgency and doubts about Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s legitimacy after August’s fraud-marred election, Obama was conducting a much-needed reality check.
“We are a divided country and we have to go through this process to reach a consensus. What Biden is introducing into this debate is realism, that we probably can’t win this insurgency with this government in Kabul,” Fair said.
“We need a Plan B.”
There was speculation last year that Obama was creating a “team of rivals” when he chose Gates, a Bush administration holdover, along with his presidential rival Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and James Jones, a former NATO commander and retired Marine general, as National Security Adviser.
All three are crucial players in the Afghanistan debate, in addition to Biden and U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke.
There have been no public clashes, but Jones and Gates seem to differ on the threat posed by the Taliban and the risk that al Qaeda could reestablish itself in Afghanistan if the United States pulled back.
Outside advisers will also be influential.
They include Democratic Senator John Kerry, who has warned against repeating the mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, who broke ranks with many of her fellow Democrats and backed McChrystal’s recommendation for a troop increase.
Her warning that the mission was in serious jeopardy could provide political cover to Obama to back a troop increase.
Gates has sought to play down any rift within the administration between civilian and military leaders, expressing confidence that no matter what course Obama chooses, McChrystal will implement it as effectively as possible.”
But the review may put McChrystal in a difficult position.
“If you’re a general on the ground and you believe that a recommendation you made is the winning recommendation ... and then you’re told that you can’t execute that, and ask the troops to go out and do something else that you don’t believe will accomplish those goals, that gets very difficult in terms of a moral dilemma,” Retired Gen. Jack Keane told ABC.
Editing by Simon Denyer and Eric Walsh