Expectations are mounting in Washington that President Barack Obama may be moving towards a commitment to send more troops to Afghanistan, following an exhaustive review of US war strategy.
But the exact timing of a decision, the make-up and size of any US reinforcements, and their reconfigured mission remain unclear, pending a conclusion to a high-level policy review.
Obama has said he may choose a new plan, which would involve a ruling on war commander General Stanley McChrystal’s request for thousands more counter-insurgency troops, before the Afghan run-off election on November 7.
“I think it is entirely possible that we have a strategy formulated before a run-off is determined, we may not announce it,” he told NBC News Wednesday.
The US president has already made clear that his rejigged strategy towards Afghanistan — and Pakistan, where Al-Qaeda leaders are thought to be hiding — will not see any troops pulled from the fight.
So, it would be a surprise if Obama, faced with a warning from his hand-picked commander McChrystal that the war could be lost without more troops, decided to freeze the US garrison at the 68,000 it will soon reach.
“The president will make a decision in the next few weeks, in the coming weeks,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday.
“I don’t know when that decision will be — it could be before the run off, it might be after the run off.”
The president is seen as having few appealing choices in Afghanistan.
They range from pouring large numbers of counter-insurgency troops into the war — McChrystal has asked for 40,000 troops or more — to eschewing troop increases completely and focusing mostly on tackling Al-Qaeda.
One option gaining currency in Congress forsees an acceleration of the NATO effort to train the Afghan national army — with perhaps around 15,000 extra troops.
Some observers meanwhile have suggested a moderate injection of soldiers to boost counter-insurgency forces could be allied to a civilian effort to train more Afghan police. War critics want to see no more deployments.
In his NBC interview, Obama also hinted at a need to act soon to satisfy military deployment procedures to ensure any extra manpower arrives on the battlefield by the Afghan spring.
“We are not going to drag it out, because there is the sense that the sooner we get a sound approach in place and personnel in place, the better off we are going to be.”
Obama’s in-depth strategy review, played out in regular meetings among his war council with top security aides in the White House Situation Room, was complicated by the fraud-tainted Afghan presidential election.
But President Hamid Karzai’s decision to accept a run-off vote on November 7 with his top challenger Abdullah Abdullah, may remove one of the biggest barriers to making a final evaluation.
While warning that any election in war-torn Afghanistan, as winter descends, is a tough undertaking, officials are hoping that the presumed winner Karzai will emerge with his tarnished legitimacy enhanced.
Officials have said Washington must have a credible partner in Kabul for a counter-insurgency or development effort to work — and piled enormous pressure on Karzai to agree to the run-off.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is arguing that the Afghan election alone will not ease US anxiety over the evolving government in Kabul, following months of corruption claims against Karzai.
“I think we need to be realistic that the issues of corruption and governance that we are trying to work with the Afghan government on are not going to be solved simply by an outcome of the presidential election.
“This is going to be a work in progress, an evolutionary effort, and we need to be realistic about that,” Gates said in Japan on Wednesday.
Senator John Kerry, who helped broker the deal that led to the run-off vote, warned after meeting Obama on Wednesday that it was “common sense” to wait until the November 7 election before troop deployment decisions.
Obama meanwhile told NBC that Afghan strategy “is not just dependent on military forces.
“It’s also dependent on how well we’re doing with our civilian development efforts. How well we’re doing in stemming corruption. So, this is part of a comprehensive strategy, it always has been.”
While squaring the military circle, Obama also has a political dilemma.
A new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll on Tuesday found 52 percent of Americans fear that Afghanistan represents a new Vietnam for US troops.