With his military commanders stiffening their commitment to a troop buildup in Afghanistan and his political advisers hardening their support for pulling back, President Obama this week is carrying the weight of one his young presidency’s most pivotal decisions.
Either course he selects for the future of the Afghan war could present costly hazards. Send more troops into battle and he could become bogged down in an increasingly bloody conflict that could consume resources, rupture support from his political base, alienate his congressional allies and compromise his ambitious domestic agenda.
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Pull soldiers out of the theater and he could embolden America’s enemies, harm the nation’s image around the world, jeopardize his standing with his own military and enrage his political foes.
Mr. Obama faces this dilemma as U.S. casualties continue to mount. On Saturday, Afghan authorities reported that an Afghan policeman on patrol with U.S. soldiers in Wardak province opened fire Friday night, killing two Americans and raising new concerns about the reliability of the Afghans the U.S. is trying to train. A third U.S. service member died Friday of wounds from a bomb attack in Wardak, the province neighboring Kabul.
Historian Andrew Roberts said the parallels being drawn to the decisions that confronted President Lyndon B. Johnson as the country plunged more deeply into Vietnam in the 1960s could prove, if anything, understated.
Afghanistan, he said, is “in a way, bigger than Vietnam.”
“The domino effect that people worried about wasn’t really a threat to America itself,” Mr. Roberts said, adding it was that a victory for enemy forces in Asia would embolden communists around the world.
The structure of the standoff that Mr. Obama now faces began slowly taking form weeks ago, as the president began to digest reports of rising violence and a growing insurgency in the Afghan countryside. Key leaders in the Pentagon and in the White House reacted differently to the developments.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the president’s top commander on the ground in Afghanistan, has become the public face of the camp that saw an urgent need for a more robust counterinsurgency. The West Point graduate and former Green Beret wrote a confidential assessment that outlined an approach to the conflict that would insert tens of thousands of additional troops into the field. The report was then leaked to the public.
The goal: To secure the population from harm and in so doing win them over and create space for legitimate public governance. That would mean regaining firm control of hostile regions such as Kandahar, which is now compared by many military analysts as the new version of Fallujah - a violent place that, if secured, could send a decisive message to the enemy.
This camp is believed to have the backing of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, knowledgeable sources said.
In recent days, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has become the face of the other camp. Guided by Anthony J. Blinken, who was Mr. Biden’s right-hand man on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the vice president has argued that Mr. Obama can achieve his goal of dismantling and destroying al Qaeda with a lighter force, assisted by unmanned drones and other more surgical tools.
This contingent believes the Taliban, which is more regionally focused, is the bigger problem in Afghanistan now, and that al Qaeda can be prevented from regaining strength with precision operations.
Knowledgeable sources say this camp includes Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff, who is one of Mr. Obama’s most experienced political and congressional tacticians. Mr. Emanuel would be well-acquainted with the rising unease among anti-war Democrats on Capitol Hill who don’t want the nation to become bogged down in a conflict without end.
Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, described the sentiment in a statement issued late last month. “Spending billions more dollars and sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan may not significantly improve conditions on the ground and may actually prove counterproductive in stabilizing Pakistan and fighting al Qaeda in the region and around the world,” he wrote.
The choice between these two courses of action represent “the most important decision [President Obama] will make as president,” said longtime political analyst Ed Rollins.
“For a new president who is not tested in any way, shape or form, this decision will be critical,” Mr. Rollins said.
The gravity of the situation has led Mr. Obama to step back. In the past three weeks, he has repeatedly signaled he would need time to deliberate.
“I understand the public’s weariness of this war, given that it comes on top of weariness about the war in Iraq,” the president said after meeting with world leaders in Pittsburgh two weeks ago.
“I would expect that the public would ask some very tough questions. That’s exactly what I’m doing, is asking some very tough questions,” he said. “I think anybody who’s looked at the situation recognizes that it’s difficult and it’s complicated. But my solemn obligation is to make sure that I get the best answers possible, particularly before I make decisions about sending additional troops into the theater.”
Stephen J. Hadley, who as national security adviser to President George W. Bush was one of the key advisers involved in planning the surge of troops into Iraq in 2007, said that he thinks the Obama White House is conducting the review in a responsible way.
In 2006, as the Bush administration reviewed its options in Iraq, Mr. Hadley said in an interview, he tried to “put the president at the center of that review.”
“That’s because it’s obviously a big decision, and it’s the president who’s been elected by the American people to make those decisions. But it’s also, you know, his legacy that we’re talking about,” he said.
Mr. Hadley said the Obama White House faces one disadvantage that the Bush administration did not. The public is watching the review unfold, which “means that our friends are watching, our enemies are watching and our men and women in uniform are watching.”
“Our allies wonder if we’ll have staying power; our enemies try to crank up their propaganda and violence; and of course, our men and women want to know that they’re risking their lives for a strategy in which the president believes,” Mr. Hadley said.
Mr. Obama’s top aides appear to be acutely aware that historians are also watching. Last week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed that several of them were reading historical accounts of the march into Vietnam.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, who has served combat tours as a Marine in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said he thinks there are valuable lessons to be learned from Vietnam.
“We learned from Vietnam incrementalism doesn’t work, and so de-escalation doesn’t work either,” Mr. Hunter said.
But during an appearance at The Atlantic’s “First Draft of History” conference in Washington, Gen. David H. Petraeus discounted the comparison.
“Afghanistan is not Vietnam,” said Gen. Petraeus, who is the commander of U.S. Central Command, promoted to that position after overseeing the troop surge as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Princeton about the influence of the Vietnam War on the U.S. military’s use of force.
“It’s Afghanistan, and that’s hard enough,” he said.
• Kara Rowland contributed to this report.
• Matthew Mosk can be reached at email@example.com.
• Jon Ward can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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