WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama heard opinions from top advisers on how to reverse the deteriorating Afghanistan war on Wednesday as part of a sweeping strategy review that could lead to more U.S. troops.
There were divisions within the administration, particularly between military and civilian leaders, over whether to bolster forces or take an alternative path as Obama inches toward a pivotal decision in a war that his predecessor, George W. Bush, began after the September 11 attacks eight years ago.
With casualties rising among the 68,000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan, Americans weary of the war and Obama still weeks away from a decision, a political battle brewed over Afghanistan.
Republicans accused Obama of taking too much time to decide what to do while Democrats defended his deliberate approach and the White House fired back at opponents.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a critical voice in the talks, was as yet undecided about what to do.
He was described as skeptical of an idea for a narrowly focused effort that would rely on a small number of special forces and the use of Predator drones to track down and kill members of al Qaeda.
“He does not think that is a path to success in Afghanistan. I think we’ve tried that before with little to no success. In fact, some would argue that we paid the price for it on 9/11,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.
But Morrell did not say that Gates was wedded to a full counter-insurgency operation which could require a major increase in troops to secure Afghanistan.
“These are much more sophisticated conversations than just ‘either, or’,” he said.
The baseline for discussions was a grim assessment from General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, who wrote in a report that the war would end in failure without additional troops and changes in strategy aimed at gaining the trust of the Afghan people.
McChrystal has submitted a request for additional troops said to be in the range of 30,000 to 40,000 but Obama has not seen it and is not considering troop numbers until he and his top advisers agree on the right strategy.
McChrystal and General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, were participating in the talks via video link. Obama was joined in the White House Situation Room by Gates, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and special envoy Richard Holbrooke, among others.
Biden has proposed a shift in the U.S. mission that would in part concentrate on attacking al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, using drones equipped with missiles and other tactics, while intensifying training of Afghan forces.
Obama was described as keeping an open mind about what changes are needed. His administration wants to know the outcome of Afghanistan’s election, marred by charges of vote fraud, before deciding on a new course.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama was hearing a “number of different perspectives” from military and diplomatic leaders. But his ultimate goal was the same as it has always been: to prevent al Qaeda from being in position to attack the United States or use Afghanistan as a safe haven.
Obama is in a difficult position. Some Democrats are urging him to resist the temptation to send in more U.S. troops and liberals are strongly against an increase.
Republicans, however, are already accusing him of risking American lives by taking weeks to review Afghan policy.
“Every day that we delay, another one of those 68,000 brave young Americans who are already there are in greater danger,” said Senator John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the committee chairman, defended Obama. “Every day that is being taken now can save a whole lot of troops if the right decision is reached,” he said.
Gibbs pushed back against the Republicans, accusing them of playing politics and noting that they did not raise similar issues when Bush took his time determining a new strategy for Iraq.
“The American people deserve an assessment that’s beyond game playing,” he said.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Phil Stewart and Thomas Ferraro; editing by Chris Wilson