WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he would not make a swift decision on sending more U.S. forces to Afghanistan and set out broad goals for Kabul and neighboring Pakistan to rein in militants and corruption that critics dismissed as vague.
The White House rolled out for Congress its long-awaited objectives for Afghanistan and Pakistan ahead of an expected request by Army General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, for troops.
Influential Republican Senator John McCain said tens of thousands of additional troops may need to be deployed to turn the tide against a resurgent Taliban.
But a request for more troops faces resistance from within Obama’s Democratic Party, which controls Congress. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said a decision to send more troops to Afghanistan may be taken but “first a convincing case must be made to the American people that it will make a difference.”
Opinion polls show Americans are turning against the nearly eight-year-old war.
Topping Obama’s objectives, according to a draft document obtained by Reuters, was improving Pakistan’s counterinsurgency capabilities and building up Afghan security forces so that the role of the United States can be reduced.
The administration plans to assess progress against its objectives by the end of next March but the document offered few specifics and set no target dates for delivering results.
“There are a lot more questions than answers,” said Republican Rep. Bill Young of Florida.
The Obama administration already appears to have missed one of its immediate targets — ensuring Afghanistan holds “credible elections”. Last month’s presidential poll has been beset by widespread allegations of fraud.
Under pressure from fellow Democrats to put off any U.S. troop increases until the Afghan army has been expanded, Obama told reporters at the White House that “there is no immediate decision pending on resources.”
“You have to get the strategy right and then make the determination about resources,” Obama said, speaking a day after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said more troops would probably be needed and that he expected a request from McChrystal in a couple of weeks.
The White House’s wariness about committing now to another troop increase has put a spotlight on divisions within the administration, officials and lawmakers said.
With insurgent violence soaring, the Pentagon has already nearly doubled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan this year to 62,000. That number is set to grow by another 6,000 by year’s end.
The three-page “Evaluating Progress in Afghanistan-Pakistan” document lists the Obama administration’s No. 1 objective as disrupting “terrorist networks in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan to degrade any ability they have to plan and launch international terrorist attacks.”
The administration also wants to see “progress toward Pakistan’s civilian government and judicial system becoming stable and free of military involvement,” the document said.
For Afghanistan, Obama set the primary goal of developing “increasingly self-reliant Afghan security forces that can lead the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism fight with reduced U.S. assistance,” but he set no timetable.
Underscoring tensions with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the document called for “demonstrable action by government against corruption.” A similar goal was set for Pakistan.
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mullen’s testimony to lawmakers on Tuesday directly contradicted what Obama said on Wednesday about not making an immediate decision on additional resources until the strategy was “right”.
“The administration, in my view, is badly divided,” said McCain, who urged Obama to carry out a troop “surge” in Afghanistan similar to the one ordered by then-President George W. Bush in Iraq in 2007.
McCain said the administration’s objectives lacked “depth.” Sen. Bob Corker, also a Republican, said the administration’s presentation was “incredibly superficial.”
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Thomas Ferraro, Andrew Gray, Phil Stewart and Sue Pleming; Writing by Adam Entous; Editing by Eric Beech and Alison Williams