WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama pushed his Afghan war council Wednesday for revisions in strategy options presented to him before he will go ahead with a final decision on boosting troop levels in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. official said.
Facing increasing U.S. public skepticism over the eight-year-old war, Obama asked his top advisers to clarify how and when U.S. troops will shift security responsibility to the Afghan government, the administration official said.
The White House said Obama has yet to make up his mind on the proposals that have been put forth, and he is expected to continue deliberations during a nine-day trip to Asia starting Thursday. His press secretary has insisted a decision is still weeks away.
Officials privately have described proposals that would call for deeper U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan to confront a resurgent Taliban and its al Qaeda allies.
They had said earlier that among the four strategy options Obama is considering, there was growing support among some of his top advisers for deploying 30,000 or more additional troops to Afghanistan.
But Obama raised questions during a 2-1/2-hour strategy review, the eighth in a series of such meetings, that could weigh heavily on how many additional troops are sent to Afghanistan and the timeframe for keeping them there.
As a result, the options presented by Obama’s national security team are almost certain to be amended.
Obama seems intent on putting more of the onus on the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose credibility is in doubt after being returned to power despite a fraud-tainted election. He has been widely blamed for tolerating rampant corruption.
“The president believes that we need to make clear to the Afghan government that our commitment is not open-ended,” the senior official said.
Demands will be imposed on the Afghan government to make sure its fledgling security forces are beefed up so a timeline can be established for transferring duties to them.
Obama’s strategy session took place as a new opinion poll showed a growing number of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is not going well and disapprove of his handling of the situation.
Record combat deaths have eroded U.S. public support and sending more troops could become a political liability for Obama ahead of congressional elections next year.
While it remains unclear where Obama stands, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen are said to favor the option of deploying 30,000 or more additional troops.
At the low end of the spectrum, one plan would add 20,000-plus troops. Another would fully embrace a request by General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, for the 40,000 extra troops he says are needed to avert failure, the officials said.
Republican critics have accused Obama of dithering but he says he is taking the time to get it right. Some of his fellow Democrats oppose any escalation of the war. There are now nearly 68,000 U.S. troops and 40,000 allied forces in Afghanistan.
The U.S. ambassador in Kabul sent two strongly worded classified memos to Washington last week expressing concerns about sending more U.S. troops until Karzai changes course, The Washington Post said Wednesday.
Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, expressed deep reservations about Karzai’s erratic behavior and corruption in his government, the newspaper reported, citing senior U.S. officials.
After the White House meeting, U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, left for Paris to consult officials there, a senior U.S. official said, adding that he then planned to go on to Berlin and Moscow.
Obama’s aides had once called the Afghan conflict the “good war” in contrast to the Iraq war launched by his predecessor George W. Bush in 2003.
But public approval of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan has dropped from 49 percent in July to 36 percent in November, according to one poll. The Pew survey showed 57 percent now say the military effort in Afghanistan is going either not too well or not well at all, up from 45 percent in January.
Writing by Matt Spetalnick, additional reporting by Alister Bull, editing by Philip Barbara