President Barack Obama is grappling with the difficult decision of whether to send even more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to reverse recent gains by the Taliban and help establish a stable democracy. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called it one of the most important decisions President Obama is likely to make as president. It is the kind of wrenchingly difficult decision faced by American presidents, and other leaders, throughout history.
There is no shortage of advice for President Obama. His generals have made clear they want more troops, including his Afghanistan commander Army General Stanley McChrystal. "The situation is serious and I choose that word very, very carefully," McChrystal said.
McChrystal's dire assessment prompted President Obama to review the strategy he announced just six months ago.
In the review, Mr. Obama is getting advice from all sides, including his 2008 rival for the presidency, Republican Senator John McCain. "There are a number of options, but the option that's presented by our military commanders in the field, endorsed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should be given, obviously, additional weight because they were correct in employing the strategy that succeeded in Iraq," McCain said.
Senator McCain urged the president to move quickly and avoid "half-measures."
But there are also many people urging caution, including Vice president Joe Biden and other senior members of the president's own party, such as the Democratic Party's 2004 presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry. He has questions about the strength and intentions of the Taliban, and also about Pakistan's role in the region. "Until those questions are satisfactorily answered, I think it would be irresponsible to make a choice to commit people to harm's way," Kerry said.
The conflicting pressures add to what is inevitably a difficult decision for any president, whether to put the lives of tens of thousands more Americans at risk for an uncertain outcome in a far-away land.
"His presidency in some ways could very well be on the line as a consequence of this," said historian Robert Dallek, author of a dozen books on 20th century U.S. presidents and the decisions they have faced. "Decisions about war and peace are always dilemmas for a president. These decisions really become sort of life and death decisions, not only for the troops that are sent into battle, but a kind of political life-and-death decision for a presidential administration," he said.
Dallek points out that past presidents who started or deepened U.S. involvement in wars often saw their domestic programs suffer. And President Obama has an extensive and expensive domestic agenda he wants to get through the Congress. "The pressures on presidents to do this are just palpable. And Harry Truman pays a huge political price for that. Lyndon Johnson pays a huge political price. And who knows what will happen now with President Obama," he said.
Dallek notes that one president who did not follow military advice to escalate a conflict was John F. Kennedy. He rejected calls for an invasion of Cuba at the time of the missile crisis in 1962. Kennedy chose tough diplomacy and the threat of force instead, and it worked. "Any president with the knowledge of history and intelligence of a Barack Obama, I think, is going to be skeptical of what the military tells him, and is not going to reject their advice, not going to say, 'I don't listen to my commanders.' He will listen to them. But it doesn't mean he's going to give them Carte Blanche [i.e., total freedom]. I think he will be cautious as to what he does with the advice he gets," he said.
The advice President Obama is getting from top military officers is to send more troops and re-commit to the goals and strategy he himself announced just six months ago. "We have a clear and focused goal - to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future," the president said.
President Weighs Options
The question is how to do that.
One approach is to send more troops and pursue a broad counterinsurgency strategy to stabilize Afghanistan, as the president originally announced. He has already added 21,000 troops to the U.S. contingent in the country to help achieve that.
The other option being promoted by some officials and analysts is to limit the number of U.S. ground forces, focusing instead on air strikes and raids on terrorist cells, and not worry about Afghanistan's overall stability.
General McChrystal warns that the limited approach would be "shortsighted". "I think the first thing we are doing is preventing the return of al-Qaida to a very vulnerable area, or rather transnational terrorists. I also think we are helping Afghanistan become a stable state. That is not just in their interests, I think it's in our interests as well," the general said
Advocates of the troop-intensive approach warn that militant Islam would be strengthened worldwide, if the U.S. and NATO effort in Afghanistan fails, and the danger of terrorism from that region and elsewhere would increase.
In March, President Obama indicated he has some sympathy for that view. "If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban or allows al-Qaida to go unchallenged, that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can," the president said.
But historian Dallek has heard such dire predictions before. "With Vietnam, we were so concerned that our credibility would be so undermined if we didn't stand and fight, the other countries of Southeast Asia would fall - the Chinese, the Soviets would be emboldened, it might lead to World War III. It all proved to be nonsense," he said.
Still, Dallek says, like any president, Barack Obama can not simply ignore his military commanders because they just might be right.
Officials say that aside from the strategic issues, President Obama is deeply concerned about the recent sharp increase in U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, and the expectation that sending more troops and further expanding operations will likely result in even more casualties. But they also say the best thing the president can do for the troops is come up with the right strategy. They say President Obama will announce his decision soon.