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What next in Afghanistan? The five people Obama is asking.

President Obama has said he is reviewing US strategy in Afghanistan. Here are five of the most important people he is listening to – and what they might be telling him.

By Staff writer / September 24, 2009

Lance Cpl. Nathan Nail of Oxford, Ala., on patrol with his Marine unit on Aug. 11, in Khan Neshin, Afghanistan, an area the Taliban once controlled.

Robert Nickelsberg/The New York Times/File

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When he announced his administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan this spring, President Obama added an important asterisk.

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“Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course,” he said March 27. “We will review whether we are using the right tools and tactics to make progress towards accomplishing our goals.”

Now, he is making good on that promise.

Mr. Obama has already held one meeting of his top foreign policy and military advisers to discuss the Afghan war, according to news reports. Several more are expected, beginning next week.

What comes out of this high-level review could determine whether tens of thousands more American troops head to Afghanistan or whether America essentially pulls back and focuses on targeted counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda.

Here is what is known about where the members of the National Security Council might stand.

President Obama

Back in March, Obama said his goal was “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”

He has consistently repeated that goal. But his strategic calculus about how to do that appears to be changing.

Media reports suggest that Obama has been shaken by the allegations of widespread fraud in Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential elections. The results have sowed doubt about whether President Hamid Karzai is a reliable partner.

Also a factor is the dire battlefield assessment by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who is expected to request as many as 40,000 more troops. At a time when Obama is strained to his political limit by the healthcare debate, the prospect of having to sell an Afghan troop surge is decidedly unpalatable.

The shift in Obama’s outlook was evident Sunday, when Obama told “Meet the Press”: “I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face.”

The comment contrasted strikingly to the tone of an Aug. 17 speech – three days before the Afghan election – when he said that the war in Afghanistan “is fundamental to the defense of our people."

Vice President Joe Biden

So far, Vice President Biden has been the most outspoken critic of expanding the Afghan war.

In different venues, he has proposed different courses of action.

In an interview with CNN, he advocated a wait-and-see approach. He noted that Obama approved 21,000 more troops for Afghanistan in March, and not all of them have even arrived.

“They're now only getting in place; they're not all fully in place and deployed,” he said, calling discussion of adding troops “premature.”