WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – President Barack Obama, under pressure for a swift decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan, has delayed action due to doubts about the election there and over the government’s legitimacy, officials said on Tuesday.
As a prominent Democrat lawmaker warned Obama not to repeat a “half-ass it and hope” policy, and Republicans accused him of foot dragging, the White House engaged in a thorough review of whether its war strategy would still be effective given the widespread reports of fraud in last month’s election.
Even the best counterinsurgency strategy “cannot work” without a legitimate government in place, one White House official said, underscoring the intense debate within the administration about how to move forward.
The Pentagon had initially anticipated that the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, would submit a request for more soldiers soon after delivering his confidential assessment on the war. But White House and Pentagon officials said questions about Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s legitimacy have thrown that timetable off course. Consideration of a troop increase would now wait until Obama completed a review of the six-month-old counterinsurgency strategy. That strategy hinges on protecting Afghan civilians, while rapidly bolstering Afghan security and governance in order to sap public support for the Taliban.
Officials said the White House wanted the picture to be clearer before taking a decision on resources that could spark a backlash within Obama’s own Democratic party, where doubts about the war resurfaced this summer. But a leading Democrat warned Obama to give troops the backing and time they needed to succeed.
“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 to Obama. “I believe that this was a strategic mistake … resulting in an approach of ”half-ass it and hope”,” he said. “We cannot afford to continue that policy.”
As part of the review, the 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, who warned in his leaked assessment that the mission was likely to fail without additional troops, may have a hard sell. 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 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 Pentagon officials saw the administration’s sudden focus on the legitimacy of the Afghan government as an excuse for putting off a tough political decision on troops.
Critics 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. “Frankly I do not understand, or perhaps I have never seen a disconnect like this between the military leadership and the White House on an issue,” McCain said. But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, dismissed talk of a rift as a media construct.