(Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama is likely to announce his new Afghanistan war strategy in the coming weeks following an intensive review that has exposed divisions over what to do next.
Here’s where some of the key players stand:
GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has recommended an increase of 40,000 troops as the minimum necessary to prevail. There are already 65,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and another 39,000 from allied nations.
McChrystal has also given Obama the option of sending more than the 40,000 additional troops — up to 80,000 according to some sources — and has described the option of sending no additional troops as “high risk.” McChrystal has spoken in grave tones about Afghanistan, warning that success in the campaign against the Taliban could not be taken for granted.
McChrystal took charge of the Afghanistan operation after his predecessor, General David McKiernan, was ousted in May by Obama. McKiernan’s exit signaled a shift from a conventional strategy to a counter-insurgency plan aimed at reducing civilian deaths.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN is the leading skeptic within the Obama administration of McChrystal’s recommendation of a troop increase.
Behind the scenes, Biden sometimes plays the role of devil’s advocate. Though he is known for his public gaffes, Biden is considered within the White House a knowledgeable voice on foreign affairs, given his status as former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Biden’s approach on Afghanistan would involve narrowing the counter-insurgency mission and concentrating more heavily on the counter-terrorism mission of pursuing al Qaeda targets in Pakistan and along the Afghan border. This option would involve little or no change to U.S. troop levels for now.
WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF RAHM EMANUEL is described in media reports as sympathetic to Biden’s view. Those reports cite a worry among Obama’s domestic advisers that the Afghanistan war could become a Vietnam-like quagmire if the administration were to commit itself more deeply to the effort and that it would overwhelm other priorities such as healthcare reform and fixing the economy.
DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES, whose views could sway Obama’s, has signaled he would be reluctant to scale back the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan and would be open to a troop increase. Gates has blamed the Taliban’s resurgence on a past failure to deploy enough troops and said the United States could not afford to give al Qaeda and its Taliban allies the propaganda victory of a U.S. retreat in Afghanistan. He expressed reservations in the past about increasing the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan but has since said many of those concerns had been addressed by McChrystal.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON, also considered an influential player behind closed doors, has said little to reveal where she stands on a troop increase, but she is said to have developed a close rapport with Gates and could side with him in the internal debate. In an October 6 interview with CBS, Clinton warned that if the Taliban were able to retake control of Afghanistan or big swaths of it, “there is every reason to believe” al Qaeda would once again secure a sanctuary there, a concern shared by Gates but that the White House national security adviser has sought to downplay.
WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER JAMES JONES, whose job is to mediate among the foreign policy voices within the administration, has said McChrystal’s recommendation is one of several options under consideration and not a “fait accompli.” He has said publicly that he does not foresee a risk that the Taliban would regain control of Afghanistan and emphasized that the United States has made big strides against al Qaeda militants there. His comments differ in tone from the much more ominous view of Afghanistan that McChrystal has offered.
RICHARD HOLBROOKE, U.S. SPECIAL ENVOY FOR AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN, has said little publicly about the issue of a troop increase for Afghanistan but has privately voiced concern about the risk of under-resourcing the military mission, particularly along the border with Pakistan. He is frustrated by what he and his advisers see as Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to seriously tackle corruption. U.S. officials question whether a counter-insurgency strategy can be effective if the Karzai government is not seen as legitimate.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA has cast himself as a skeptic when it comes to sending more troops and has said he would ask “tough questions” of his advisers. Obama, who has described Afghanistan as a “war of necessity,” told senior lawmakers in a White House meeting this month that he would neither substantially reduce U.S. troops levels in Afghanistan nor shift the focus to just hunting militants in the border areas with Pakistan. This suggests he is looking for a middle-ground approach. Obama’s aides have emphasized that his strategy deliberations will be guided by the overriding goal of defeating al Qaeda.
Reporting by Caren Bohan and Adam Entous in Washington; editing by Mohammad Zargham