- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

As President Obama met for three hours with his national security team to plot his next moves in Afghanistan, he faced intensifying pressure from Capitol Hill Republicans who want to force top brass to testify on whether more troops are needed to win the war.

The president huddled in the Situation Room with a team that included Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., key Cabinet secretaries and top generals, and which linked in Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal from Afghanistan with a video hookup, with a goal of settling on a firm strategy for the war.

Mr. Obama has seen two camps evolve on how best to proceed. One faction envisions adding troops for a heavy presence on Afghan soil that could execute a prolonged counterinsurgency strategy that, if successful, would leave the country’s government stable enough to ward off al Qaeda. The other believes a lighter force, aided by drone aircraft, would be sufficient to hold the Taliban at bay and prevent al Qaeda leadership from regrouping.

White House officials reiterated Wednesday that resolution of this conflict would come only with careful deliberation that could take several more weeks. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said at least three more strategy sessions have been scheduled, including one next week.

“I think this goes to a larger perspective of the way the administration is viewing this assessment and this discussion, and that is: Let’s get a firm strategy; let’s discuss that; let’s poke and prod it and ensure that we’ve done it the right way; then implement tactics to achieve that strategy,” Mr. Gibbs said.

He noted that a number of the president’s aides have been reading “Lessons in Disaster,” a self-searching memoir written with McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, in which he attempts to understand the series of ill-fated decisions that marched the nation deeper and deeper into the Vietnam War.

That exercise, though, has escalated concerns from congressional Republicans who worry that the White House could be caving to political pressure to end the war. Republican lawmakers on Wednesday said they were pursuing legislation that would mandate top military leaders to testify before Congress by Nov. 15, providing a public forum for them to make the case for a larger force and forcing Mr. Obama to choose between his generals and the growing anti-war sentiments coming from within his own party.

The hearing would showcase Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, who has recommended deploying as many as 40,000 more troops to the war zone.

Senate Democrats were cool to the idea of forcing the generals to testify.

“I think there’s an appropriate time for that [but] I’m not sure it’s Nov. 15 and I think we need to hear from the folks higher up in the command structure before the two generals come rolling in,” said Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat.

“Do I think they should [testify] at some point along with the high command? Absolutely. But at this point I think there’s still a process we need to go through and recognize the leadership - not just kind of grab in the middle.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, introduced the measure as an amendment to the 2010 Defense Appropriations bill that is currently on the Senate floor. The amendment could come up for a vote as early as this week.

Mr. Obama is already feeling the competing pressures of the war debate.

A group of 57 House members, mostly Democrats, sent the president a letter last week demanding that he reject an increase to U.S. force strength in Afghanistan, particularly “in the absence of a well-defined military exit strategy.”

“We have enormous confidence in the ability of the U.S. military, but we question the effectiveness of committing our troops to a prolonged counterinsurgency war that could last ten years or more, involve hundreds of thousands of troops, and impose huge financial costs on taxpayers already saddled with trillions of dollars in government debt,” the letter said.

It was signed by seven Republicans and 50 Democrats, and was spearheaded by Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat.

The letter followed warnings earlier this month from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who said there was little appetite in Congress or the country for an escalation of the conflict.

Still, Mr. McCain on Wednesday urged the president to heed the advice of Gen. McChrystal.

“Time is not on our side,” Mr. McCain said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “So we need a decision pretty quickly. I think history is pretty clear that when the Taliban took over, it became a base for attacks on the United States and our allies.”

A similar tone was struck on the other side of the Capitol, where House Minority Whip Eric Cantor warned a delay in the decision to send more troops endangered the lives of American soldiers at the front.

“Listen, you’ve got American lives on the line over there,” the Virginia Republican told The Washington Times. “As long as they are delaying, that puts in jeopardy, I believe, our men and women.”

The White House responded by calling Mr. Cantor’s criticisms “game-playing,” noting that the Republican lawmaker was silent when President Bush did not act on an Army request for more troops for Afghanistan in 2008.

“I don’t recall Congressman Cantor saying that when General David McKiernan’s request for 30,000 additional troops sat on the desk of the previous commander in chief … going to a newspaper or on television saying that the commander in chief was endangering the lives of men and women in Afghanistan,” Mr. Gibbs said at his daily press briefing. “And I think if he didn’t say that under a somewhat similar circumstance, then it’s a bunch of game-playing.”

Sources who were close to the White House at that time said Mr. Bush did not act on the McKiernan request because he wanted to avoid tying the hands of the incoming president.

• Kara Rowland contributed to this report.

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