September 23, 2009 / 12:52 AM / 10 years ago

Obama reviews options in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama has delayed a decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan because of doubts about its election and the legitimacy of its government, and is considering other options, officials said on Tuesday.

A U.S. soldier pictured near the town of Khan Neshin in Rig district of Helmand province, southern Afghanistan September 9, 2009. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

President Barack Obama, under pressure for a swift decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan, has delayed action due to doubts about last month’s election there and over the government in Kabul’s legitimacy, officials said on Tuesday.

As a prominent Democrat lawmaker warned Obama not to repeat what he described as the Bush administration’s “half-ass it and hope” policy, and Republicans accused him of foot-dragging, administration officials said there would be a thorough review of whether their six-month-old war strategy could still be effective.

They said the fraud-marred Afghan vote and its impact on public perception there would be a key to the review.

Even the best counterinsurgency strategy — focused on winning over the Afghan population and sidelining the Taliban — “cannot work” without a legitimate government in place, one White House official said, underscoring the intense debate about how to move forward.

The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, planned to submit a request for more soldiers shortly after completing his confidential assessment on the war on August 30.

But questions about Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his post-election standing have thrown that timetable off course, with the White House seeking a clearer strategic picture before considering the request, officials said. McChrystal completed his troop recommendations but has not transmitted them.

Some Pentagon insiders saw Obama’s focus on the legitimacy of the Afghan government as little more than a cover for putting off a tough political decision to send more troops, increasingly unpopular within his own Democratic party.

“The election may not be perfect, but it is good enough?” one asked, adding that defeating the Taliban should be paramount.

At least one top Democrat broke ranks with other party leaders, warning Obama against half measures.

“The last administration allowed itself to be distracted from the fight forced on us in Afghanistan by the fight it chose in Iraq,” Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Ike Skelton said in a letter. “I believe that this was a strategic mistake ... resulting in an approach of ‘half-ass it and hope’... We cannot afford to continue that policy.”

OPTIONS ON THE TABLE

As part of the review, the Obama administration is considering a range of options, from increasing U.S. force levels in Afghanistan to stepping up aerial attacks on Taliban and al Qaeda targets in Pakistan, or a combination of the two.

McChrystal warned in his assessment that the mission was likely to fail without additional troops. But Obama has described himself as a “skeptical audience” when it comes to the issue of sending more troops.

There are already more than 100,000 Western soldiers in Afghanistan battling an insurgency that has taken control of parts of the south and the east of the country.

McChrystal was expected to recommend sending at least 30,000 more, but officials said the White House’s strategy rethink could force him to revise his request.

Karzai’s apparent eagerness to ignore widespread allegations of election fraud, hurry through the process and claim victory has chilled already frosty relations with the Obama administration, officials said.

One U.S. defense official said the fallout from the election was “certainly a complicating factor” in the way of swift consideration of McChrystal’s troop recommendations.

Officials said the main question being asked was whether the counterinsurgency strategy could still succeed if Karzai’s government was not seen by the Afghan people as legitimate.

“I don’t think so,” one official said when asked that question. “Will the Afghan people accept the results of the election? We don’t even know that yet.”

Some Republicans suggested Obama was putting off the issue to keep his own Democratic party unified to pass a sweeping overhaul of healthcare, his top domestic policy priority.

Sen. John McCain, who lost the presidential race to Obama last year, said a decision on troops needed to be made urgently and said he was baffled by the idea that Obama would ask McChrystal to delay sending his recommendations.

McCain and fellow Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee called on the committee chairman, Democratic Senator Carl Levin, to schedule a public hearing and bring in McChrystal and General David Petraeus, another senior commander in Afghanistan, to testify.

Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in New York, Golnar Motevalli in Kabul, Luke Baker in London and Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by Simon Denyer and Philip Barbara

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