Obama caught in an Afghan vise

With the military and Republicans publicly pressuring him to send more troops to Afghanistan soon and his own administration now deeply divided about how to proceed there, the eight-year war against al Qaida and the Taliban has become an increasingly urgent policy and political dilemma for President Barack Obama.

He can escalate an unpopular and open-ended war and risk a backlash from his liberal base or refuse his commanders and risk being blamed for a military loss that could tar him and his party as weak on national security.

Obama’s decision could be a defining moment of his presidency, and it will reveal much about how he leads. Friends and enemies around the world will be watching — and judging — whether he’s firmly in charge or whether he instinctively seeks some safe middle ground.

“This is tough for Democrats. They own this war. They own what happens from here on out. This is a bit of a mess for them all the way around,” said Juan Carlos Zarate, a senior adviser at Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former official in the Bush and Clinton administrations.

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