President Obama convened his war council at the White House for the eighth time in six weeks on Wednesday, as he neared a decision on a strategy for the war in Afghanistan and how many more U.S. troops will be needed there.
The president leaves for a weeklong trip to Asia on Thursday and won't announce his decision on an Afghanistan strategy until after he returns. But a top general said before the meeting that the strategy-review process was close to being finished.
"We are indeed nearing a decision on this very important topic," said Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, speaking to CNN from the White House.
The administration acknowledged that the president and his top advisers narrowed their choices to four options, all of which presumably include an increase of U.S. troops beyond the roughly 65,000 in Afghanistan.
The White House reportedly is considering an increase of between 15,000 and 30,000 troops, but a White House official insisted that Mr. Obama "has not made a decision about the options presented."
The White House official said that much of the more than two-hour meeting focused on "the length of time that it would take to implement the options he's been presented."
The official also emphasized that the U.S. must "make clear to the Afghan government that our commitment is not open-ended" and that "governance in Afghanistan must improve in a reasonable period of time to ensure a successful transition to our Afghan partner."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai faced scrutiny when the United Nations concluded that his election victory in August was the result of corruption and vote-tampering. He received a second term, however, when his challenger dropped out of a runoff election.
Karl W. Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, expressed reservations to the administration about a possible troop buildup, the Associated Press reported, because there are many unanswered questions regarding Mr. Karzai's leadership.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama himself hinted earlier this week that the exhaustive review process has run its course.
"I have gained confidence that there's not an important question out there that has not been asked ... that we haven't answered to the best of our abilities," the president said in an interview with ABC News.
Much of the debate over strategy centers on whether to focus counterinsurgency strategy on population centers where the U.S. and NATO coalition forces already have a presence or whether to try to expand coalition control to areas up for grabs or under Taliban control.
Counterinsurgency strategy focuses on winning over the civilian population through protective presence, rather than staying at bases away from the population and conducting regular raids into civilian centers. It also emphasizes building up local institutions and infrastructure to provide security and stability to the populace.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. has been the main spokesman in favor of limiting this strategy to areas already under U.S. or coalition control.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, wants to try to extend counterinsurgency efforts beyond territory already under control, which is why he requested more troops from the president in August.
That request is usually characterized as being for 40,000 more troops, but also is reported to have included an option for an increase of 80,000.
Mr. Obama has been criticized for conducting the review process in public for so long, though the leaking of Gen. McChrystal's report in August made it impossible to keep the process under wraps. Former Vice President Dick Cheney said recently that Mr. Obama is "dithering," and numerous Republicans have said the delay is endangering U.S. troops.
But retired Gen. Colin L. Powell voiced support for the review process on Wednesday. The former secretary of state to President George W. Bush has been an Obama supporter but occasionally has expressed concern about the new president's agenda.
"This is the decision that will have consequences for the better part of his administration," Mr. Powell said on the Tom Joyner radio show.