President Obama gave the orders to begin his new strategy for victory in Afghanistan and spent Monday preparing to sell that plan to the American people in a prime-time address, even as members of his own party emerged as the most persistent skeptics about the wisdom of sinking more money and lives into the 8-year-old conflict.
By issuing a series of orders during a Sunday night Oval Office meeting with his top military commanders, the president set into motion a new phase of the Afghanistan engagement that will hand him firm ownership of a war that many analysts say could define his presidency.
Nearly all accounts suggest that Mr. Obama has decided to deploy as many as 35,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan, and he has embraced, at least in part, the resource-intensive counterinsurgency strategy recommended by his top commander in the field, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
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Mr. Obama has consistently made clear that he saw the value of engaging terrorist groups in the barren landscape where they had sought refuge, but the decision to dramatically expand the American footprint in Afghanistan cuts sharply in some ways against the posture Mr. Obama held during his two-year campaign for president - as a staunchly anti-war candidate who recruited broad support from activists who valued his opposition to the U.S. policy in Iraq.
Members of the anti-war group Code Pink yesterday called Mr. Obama's planned escalation "a devastating announcement." On its Web site, Code Pink urged members to organize protests.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic members of a key House budget subcommittee submitted legislation to create a "war tax" out of concern that a plan to ramp up troops would be prohibitively expensive. Members of the Progressive Caucus sent Mr. Obama a letter advocating a firm timeline.
"What is needed now, more than an American surge, is an Afghan surge," Rep. Michael M. Honda, California Democrat, who chairs the caucus' Afghanistan task force, said Monday. "What is needed now is not about 'more troops' but 'better strategies' to build the country's capacity. What is needed now is a timeline for troop withdrawal, sending a message that U.S. supports Afghan sovereignty and independence."
Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, has led the charge for a troop withdrawal and has been one of the staunchest opponents of Gen. McChrystal's request. He said Monday that he would "strongly urge the president to reconsider."
"I just don't see how increasing our military footprint in Afghanistan is the right thing to do," he said. "The Karzai government is corrupt and incompetent. The original use-of-force authorization in 2001 was targeted at al Qaeda, which has moved to Pakistan. And we are spending billions and billions in borrowed taxpayer money to finance this effort."
The White House on Monday began an effort to allay concern among Democrats that began growing more pronounced as word of his decision spread over the Thanksgiving weekend. Press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the president would meet with congressional leaders at the White House at 4 p.m. Tuesday, right before he flies to New York to deliver his speech to the American people from the U.S. Military Academy campus at West Point.
Mr. Obama is planning to devote a good portion of his speech to widespread concerns about the long-running conflict, by reiterating that "this is not an open-ended commitment," Mr. Gibbs said.
Whether the U.S. can train Afghan forces to secure their country and prevent al Qaeda from regaining a foothold there, though, remains a source of deep disagreement within the U.S. military community.
Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, testified last month that tens of thousands of Americans will be needed to conduct that training, and those Americans will be exposed to combat and to casualties.
"And the process takes time even so," Mr. Biddle told the House Armed Services Committee. "Proper combat advising and mentoring speeds things up, but cannot provide an effective mass military instantly. In the meantime, someone must protect not just key population centers but also the very mobilization infrastructure of recruitment centers, supply depots, bases and transportation connections needed to create the new Afghan formations."
The president's commitment to the strategy comes at the conclusion of a four-month review he conducted with his top military, political and domestic advisers.
Over the course of nine meetings in the Situation Room, factions within his team emerged, with some counseling the president to avoid an escalation and focus on a more narrow strategy that targeted extremists. The president's top military advisers countered by promoting the approach laid out by Gen. McChrystal - one that would commit more troops to a counterinsurgency that, if successful, would stabilize and secure a land that has long been a lawless haven for terrorists.
"The value of that review will be seen in the sophistication and intelligence of the strategy," said one senior administration official. "Nobody at the table got everything they wanted, or everything they recommended. But everybody among the principals can justifiably feel ownership of the product, from McChrystal to [Vice President Joseph R.] Biden [Jr.]"
One key concession from Mr. Obama's military advisers involved the insistence by the president's political advisers that Mr. Obama needed to be clear that he was setting the country on a path to ending its commitment. Democrats have been methodically laying the political groundwork for an exit of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasized two weeks ago that the nation has no long-term commitment in Afghanistan other than to rout al Qaeda and any other terrorist networks in the country. Mr. Gibbs said pointedly last week, "We're not going to be there another eight or nine years."
The White House decision gets at the fine line that Mr. Obama will have to walk in deciding what is palatable at home and what will be successful abroad.
"I think that really shows the public mood and fears the administration has that to go for anything more ambitious will not have traction in Congress," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow for the left-leaning Brookings Institution.
One area in which there is broad agreement is that Mr. Obama has much riding on the success of both the rollout and the execution of the strategy.
The Republican Study Committee chairman, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, just came back from a five-day trip to Afghanistan, where he had Thanksgiving dinner with American troops. He said soldiers were disheartened by the long time Mr. Obama has taken to make his decision. He said he is looking for the president to, finally, define the mission clearly and explain how he plans to carry it out.
"This is a hugely important speech," Mr. Price said.
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