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Obama Brings Congress Into Afghan Strategy Review

October 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Reporters offer insight into President Obama's meeting with lawmakers Tuesday to discuss a strategy shift in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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JIM LEHRER: President Obama brought Congress into his strategy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan today. He invited more than 30 leaders from both parties to the White House.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The gathering at the White House was part of the president’s ongoing strategic review. Hours before the meeting, Mr. Obama addressed counterterrorism workers and reaffirmed his long-term goal for Afghanistan and beyond.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It should now be clear. The United States and our partners have sent an unmistakable message: We will target al-Qaida wherever they take root; we will not yield in our pursuit; and we are developing the capacity and the cooperation to deny a safe haven to any who threaten America and its allies.

KWAME HOLMAN: The ground commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, wants to achieve that goal with thousands more troops.

JOSEPH BIDEN, vice president, United States: You are warriors of the first degree.

KWAME HOLMAN: Vice President Biden and others favor targeting al-Qaida militants in nearby Pakistan.

The situation got an airing with the lawmakers at today’s meeting. Democratic leaders praised the president for taking his time and consulting, but they echoed concerns by many on their side about sending more troops.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., speaker of the house: The question that the leader put forth at the beginning — and General McChrystal said in his report — without a strategy, we shouldn’t resource the mission. So the question is: How do we evaluate the tools at our disposal? Do we have an able partner in President Karzai? Is the government capable of acting in a way that is not fraught with corruption?

REP. STENY HOYER, D-Md., house majority leader: The president indicated that he was going to make this decision in a timely fashion, which I think everyone thought was appropriate, and a considerate fashion. I don’t want to make further comments about the substance of that conversation, but I thought it was a positive conversation. The president obviously is taking this very, very seriously and is going to further consult with members of the Congress and with his military leaders and determine what decision he thinks is appropriate.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: We have to understand exactly what is possible to achieve here. And I think a lot of senators and congressmen need to question themselves about how much money they’re prepared to put on the table to support that, for how long a period of time, and for what strategy. There are serious questions about, you know, Pakistan’s relationship to what we do in Afghanistan. There are questions about the Taliban. And until those questions are satisfactorily answered, I think it would be irresponsible to make the choice about committing people to harm’s way.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the other hand, Republicans said they are ready to support the president if he asks for more troops, and they urged him again to act.

GOP ready to support Obama

Rep. John Boehner
House Majority Leader
He wants ample time to make a good decision. Frankly, I support that. But we need to remember that every day that goes by, the troops that we do have there are in greater danger.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, house minority leader: He wants ample time to make a good decision. Frankly, I support that. But we need to remember that every day that goes by, the troops that we do have there are in greater danger.

And so I don't want to -- I don't believe the president needs to make a decision in haste, but we need to get this right, and I'm hopeful that the president will make a strong decision that -- that will allow us to win this effort that was started many years ago.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., senate minority leader: I hope that, at the end of the day, the president will follow the advice of some of our finest generals who we believe know what it would take to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, prevent the comeback of the Taliban, and obviously prevent a haven for al-Qaida.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: It's pretty clear that time is not on our side, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has -- has said. We need to act with deliberate haste, and I believe an important aspect of this whole decision-making is that there are a number of options.

But the option that's presented by our military commanders in the field, endorsed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should be given, obviously, additional weight because they were correct of the strategy that when -- in employing the strategy that succeeded in Iraq.

KWAME HOLMAN: While today's mass briefing was underway here at the White House, the administration also proceeded on other tracks. U.S. strategy was high on the agenda at the State Department, where Secretary Hillary Clinton met with Pakistan's foreign minister.

Afterward, the Pakistani minister said his government is watching the process in Washington closely, and Secretary Clinton answered in kind.

SHAH MEHMOOD QURESHI, foreign minister, Pakistan: What we're looking for is a long-term commitment. Why do I say that? Because the people of the region have to be reassured that United States has a long-term vision, not just for Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the entire region.

And when I say that, we have to keep in mind history, we have to keep in mind the past, right, and the inconsistency of the past has to be kept in mind, and we have to build on learning from the mistakes of the past.

HILLARY CLINTON, secretary of state: This is a commitment that we feel very strongly about and which we are evaluating to determine the best way forward to achieve the results and get the outcomes that we both share.

KWAME HOLMAN: Pakistan has seen its own share of violence. Just yesterday, a suicide bombing rocked the U.N. World Food Program office in Islamabad, killing five U.N. employees.

Today, the Taliban claimed responsibility and charged the U.N.'s work was not in the interests of Muslims.

JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill takes the story from there.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for more on the debate at the White House today, we turn to Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and Mark Thompson, the deputy bureau chief and national security correspondent for Time magazine.

Welcome to you both.

Susan, if I'm not mistaken, I saw you peeping over John Kerry's shoulder just now in that tape in the White House driveway. Was there a meeting of the minds? It didn't seem much so today.

The 'Goldilocks' option

Mark Thompson
Time Magazine
McChrystal is giving the president and Secretary Gates a range of options. It won't be 40,000. The more carefully constructed stories you'll note will say up to 40,000, because it will probably be three different options.

SUSAN PAGE: Not a meeting of the minds in -- you know, I think in the session that President Obama hosted, he -- the White House says he listened more than he talked. Eighteen members of Congress had a chance to speak their words.

We know that President Obama made the case that he's not going to be hurried into a decision. We don't expect a decision this week, perhaps by the end of the month. And the White House tried to push back hard, I think, and the president in this meeting against the idea that he either agrees to 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan or it's nothing at all or it's pulling the plug on Afghanistan.

They're calling that a straw man argument; I believe the president used those words in the meeting. That's a message they want to get out now.

GWEN IFILL: Mark, is that the kind of choice which you're now hearing, or at least it's being boiled down to, as we listen to what the military commanders are saying and what the politicians are saying?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, basically, Gwen, McChrystal is giving the president and Secretary Gates a range of options. It won't be 40,000. The more carefully constructed stories you'll note will say up to 40,000, because it will probably be three different options, a minimal option of perhaps 10,000 troops, something more in the middle, a Goldilocks sort of in the middle of 20,000 to 25,000, and then the big option of 40,000 to 45,000.

And what McChrystal will tell the president is the bigger number is the way I can be most sure of succeeding, but, you know, if we go with the smaller number, it might take a little longer, but we may be able to do it that way, as well. And the president is simply going to have to decide what he can live with.

GWEN IFILL: As the president tries to decide, Susan, are you hearing from either members of Congress or people at the White House that the Goldilocks option is something he's trying to find his way to, that middle ground?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think that he wants a third way. And what we're hearing from the White House now is that they want to go to a fundamental reassessment of, what is the goal in Afghanistan? What's a realistic goal in Afghanistan? And what is the best way to achieve it?

You know, it's a little different from what we heard in February, when the president agreed to send some additional troops there, where we thought that was as a result of a policy reassessment. But the White House says it's going back to kind of more fundamental ground in looking at Afghanistan, and that's because the elections didn't go so well, charges of corruption and incompetence by the Karzai government -- can we depend on them -- concern about a deteriorating security situation, and in the context of American politics, where we know that there's an erosion of support for the war among the American public.

'Backwards Day at the White House'

Susan Page
USA Today
It's like Backwards Day at the White House, because it was the Republicans who were kind of cheering him on and it was Democrats who were raising the most serious concerns about whether we are on the right course in Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: So what is at stake, from the point of view of the generals in the Pentagon -- the generals and the Pentagon and the intelligence people, what is at stake politically and strategically as they try to work their way to a decision?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, I think Susan's point is important, in terms of the Karzai government. All of a sudden, this nation is confronting the notion of sending more young men and women into harm's way for a government that -- the only way you can build a successful government is to have a legitimate government. And much more now than a year ago, there are grave doubts that the Karzai government is legitimate. I think that has sort of put the idea of -- put a brake on the notion of reinforcements inside the Pentagon.

Plainly, if they want to prevail, we're seeing small U.S. outposts overrun, with the death of eight Americans over this past weekend. That's a function of lack of troops on the ground. McChrystal is trying to bring those folks back to the population centers where they will be able to defend the local population, as well as better be able to defend themselves, but that's what he's going after, a counterinsurgency strategy that doesn't rely so much on hitting the bad guys as they come in from Pakistan.

GWEN IFILL: You know, as we watch meetings like this happen at the White House, it's very interesting sometimes just to peel back the curtain a little bit on how we do things here at the NewsHour. We invite Republicans on, Democrats on, and no Democrats wanted to come and talk about this meeting today.

Are you picking up that people on Capitol Hill, that Democrats are trying to figure out a way to find a way to maybe disagree with the president while not being disagreeable?

SUSAN PAGE: It's like Backwards Day at the White House, because it was the Republicans who were kind of cheering him on and it was Democrats who were raising the most serious concerns about whether we are on the right course in Afghanistan.

And you saw that even when the two -- when Senator Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, came to the microphones. And Senator Reid said everyone in the meeting said they would support what the president ultimately decides, and Nancy Pelosi's face made it clear that she does not agree with that. She is one of the big advocates of doing less in Afghanistan, of getting U.S. troops out of harm's way, of not sending additional troops.

So I think that Democrats find themselves in quite an uncomfortable position when it comes to their relationship with the president on this issue.

GWEN IFILL: And there is a point that John McCain was making today, which seemed to be interesting, too, which is the distinction between the fight against al-Qaida and the fight against the Taliban. He believes that it all should be one big fight and these things should not be separated out. Is that part of the discussion that's going on, as well?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, plainly, in Pakistan, where we don't have ground troops vice Afghanistan, where we do have ground troops, we've been going after the al-Qaida and the Taliban in Pakistan with our drones from afar, you know, sort of a wink and a nod kind of strategy with the government of Pakistan.

We haven't been doing that so much in Afghanistan where we have forces on the ground. There's a lot of discussion now over how much of this war can be off-shored. The military doesn't believe much of it can. They believe, for the intelligence and for the success of drone strikes, you actually need intelligence from folks on the ground.

So they like the notion that, so long as we are pressuring on the ground on the Afghan side, that sort of emboldens the Pakistani side and has the Pakistani military going after their own share of bad guys.

If we back away, the fear is that this whole border area, the Durand Line, will become infested by both Taliban and al-Qaida and they'll have a new safe haven they can operate out of.

Obama being tested

Mark Thompson
Time Magazine
It was Joe Biden who said that during the presidential campaign, that our next president will be tested, you know, six months to a year into his or her first term, and he was specifically talking about Barack Obama, and that is happening now.

GWEN IFILL: You know, when this is discussed here in Washington, people talk almost exclusively about the war in Afghanistan, which -- what, it's 8 years old as of tomorrow, but not so much about Pakistan, which Mark was just talking about. Did that come up in the meeting today? Are people as concerned? As the White House calls it their Af-Pak strategy, do they mention the Pak part?

SUSAN PAGE: Pakistan, I understand, was part of the discussion today. And the president meets tomorrow with his national security advisers in the White House Situation Room for a meeting devoted mostly to Pakistan, only slightly to Afghanistan.

I think these two situations are seen as linked. And, actually, people in the administration say the most dangerous place in the world for U.S. interests isn't Iraq, it's not Afghanistan. They say it is Pakistan.

GWEN IFILL: Timing. How much time does the president have from a military standpoint to reach a decision?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, he has to do it in the next several weeks, because the infrastructure in Afghanistan is so meager, we can only send in, you know, one brigade a month, 3,000 to 5,000 troops. So if you want a major reinforcement, it's going to take until next spring to get there. So this has to be -- has to be gotten underway pretty quickly.

GWEN IFILL: Is he under pressure by anybody in Congress to act more quickly or to take his time?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, we heard that from Senator McCain after the meeting today and also from John Boehner, the House leader, other Republicans saying that every day that passes puts the U.S. troops who are already in Afghanistan at greater risk unless they know this additional support is coming. So Republicans are really pushing him to act quickly.

I think that we've learned about President Obama, though, is that he will not be rushed on decisions like this, so I do think -- I think we're looking at a period of a couple weeks before we hear what he's going to do.

GWEN IFILL: This seems to be boiling down both from the military front, as well as the political front, as a test for the president, a foreign policy test, but a test of his leadership, as well. Do you hear that in the halls of the Pentagon?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, I mean, I think it was Joe Biden who said that during the presidential campaign, that this -- our next president will be tested, you know, six months to a year into his or her first term, and he was specifically talking about Barack Obama, and that is happening now. And it's happening not only with the bad guys in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the Republicans on the Hill.

GWEN IFILL: And a political test, as well, Susan?

SUSAN PAGE: And big consequences for his presidency. You know, the president about two months ago had dinner with some historians at the White House, presidential historians, and they warned him that the war in Afghanistan is the biggest threat he faces to getting the other things done he wants to get done, to having a presidency that's marked by, say, passing a big health care reform bill.

I think the president's very aware that wars are dangerous places for presidents to be, they can devour your presidency, and that whatever decision he makes now, we're going to be talking about the war in Afghanistan probably for the rest of his term. Hard to believe that we won't still have U.S. troops there at the end of his first term.

GWEN IFILL: Susan Page of USA Today, Mark Thompson of Time magazine, thank you both very much.

SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.

MARK THOMPSON: Thanks, Gwen.