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.

Robert Nickelsberg/The New York Times/File
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.

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

“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.”

More controversial, however, is his advocacy of a plan to scale back US forces and move toward a narrower counterterrorism strategy. In short, the US military would use missiles fired from drones and special forces operations to attack Al Qaeda in Pakistan and prevent their return to Afghanistan.

Such a strategy would return to the central goal – targeting Al Qaeda – without having to rebuild a corrupt and impoverished nation.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

Like Obama, Secretary Clinton has said she is open to any options going forward, so long as they keep Al Qaeda at bay.

“If Afghanistan were taken over by the Taliban, I can't tell you how fast Al Qaeda would be back in Afghanistan,” she said in an interview with PBS’s “NewsHour” Monday.

But Clinton was not necessarily swayed by McChrystal’s assertion that the US must add more troops to accomplish this.

“I can only tell you there are other assessments from, you know, very expert military analysts who have worked in counterinsurgencies that are the exact opposite [of McChrystal’s],” she said. “So what our goal is, is to take all of this incoming data and sort it out.”

National Security Adviser James Jones

While General Jones has not given a recent indication of where he stands on Afghan strategy, past statements provide some potential insight.

On a trip to Afghanistan in June, Jones told commanders not to expect any more troops this year. Clearly, much has changed since then. McChrystal had just been confirmed as the new US commander in Afghanistan, for instance.

Yet Jones seemed to think the time for troop requests ended when Obama announced his new strategy in March.

"Everybody had their day in court, so to speak, before the president made his decision,” he told McClatchy news service in an article published July 1. “We signed off on the strategy, and now we're in the implementation phase.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen

Mullen’s position in the debate is virtually certain.

He has endorsed McChrystal’s report and told Congress Sept. 15 that “a properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces.”

Mullen’s viewpoints likely reflect those of the Pentagon brass, which means the full weight of military support is behind McChrystal and his assertion that the situation in Afghanistan “demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Gates appears to be the biggest wild card.

As secretary of Defense and a Republican whose opinion is widely respected both in the administration and in Congress, his opinion would be influential. Yet of all Obama’s main advisers, he has been perhaps the most obviously conflicted.

Gates is a strong supporter of McChrystal, having engineered the retirement of McChrystal’s predecessor in order to get his man into Afghanistan.

On Sept. 3, Gates said: “I'm very open to the recommendations and certainly the perspective of General McChrystal.”

Yet in general, Gates has been wary of adding more troops, fearing that it would make the US look like occupiers.

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