More troops for Afghanistan: When will Obama decide?

The Pentagon wants Obama to make his choice soon, but if he's leaning against sending more troops, he might play for time to consider his options.

Manish Swarup/AP
A shadow of an Afghanistan National army soldier falls on a barricade on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday.

Time is not on President Obama's side when it comes to making a decision to send more forces to Afghanistan. But the political dilemma he confronts doesn't lend itself to a choice he will arrive at quickly, either.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal's battlefield assessment, leaked to the press Sunday, has added urgency to the question of whether Mr. Obama should send tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan. McChrystal said more troops will be needed or the mission will fail.

If Obama listens to his military advisers – most of whom support more troops – he may make a decision quickly.

If he opts against deepening US engagement in Afghanistan, he may play for more time to look at other options.

Either way, the decision will anger Democratic allies in Congress who are clamoring for a withdrawal or Republicans and Pentagon brass, who want a stronger commitment quickly.

"This is when presidents really earn their pay," says Larry Sabato, director the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said boldly that more troops would "probably" be needed and that he hopes a decision comes soon.

"I have a sense of urgency about this," Mullen said during a Senate hearing. "I worry a great deal that the clock is moving very rapidly."

The logistical reality is that even if Obama approved an troop increase, it's likely that no new forces would be deployed until others begin to come home from Iraq in large numbers after the January elections there.

But the Pentagon still clamoring for a decision soon. It needs enough time to identify, train, and deploy the forces it will tap for duty in Afghanistan. This becomes a matter of doing the math to know which units have had the requisite 12 months of "dwell time" – time at home – before they can be redeployed. For example, two brigades of the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Ky., which have recent Afghanistan experience, would potentially be available to deploy before December this year.

Many Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, believe Obama has already waited too long and fear that the administration is awaiting a resolution on healthcare reform before making a decision on Afghanistan.

"The sooner we get the needed resources over there, the sooner we can turn this situation around," Senator McCain said.

Mullen's statements, and now McChrystal's report, have made it harder for administration officials to hold a quieter, internal discussion, as they had hoped to do.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week sought to quell the growing anxiety, hinting that the debate was robust and needed more time. "Frankly, from my standpoint, everybody ought to take a deep breath," he said at the Pentagon.


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