WASHINGTON — Military officials voiced frustration and congressional leaders urged caution Tuesday over what they described as President Barack Obama's shifting strategy in Afghanistan, six months after he committed thousands more U.S. troops to the stalemated war there.
Administration officials maintained they were looking at all options to protect the U.S. and its allies by shutting down al-Qaida leaders who are believed to be hiding in areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.
Critics at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill said the White House was in danger of taking its eye off the fight that has turned increasingly deadly for American forces in recent months. They called on Obama to fulfill an anticipated request for more troops from the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
"This leads me to urge you to waste no time in providing a clear direction to our commanders and civilian leaders, along with the resources necessary to achieve their mission," House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., wrote to Obama in a letter dated Tuesday, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. Skelton is the highest-ranking Democrat so far to support sending more troops to Afghanistan.
Warning of what he called the lessons of history, Skelton added: "The last administration allowed itself to be distracted from the fight forced on us in Afghanistan by the fight it chose in Iraq. I believe that this was a strategic mistake, robbing the war in Afghanistan of the necessary resources and resulting in an approach of 'half-ass it and hope.' We cannot afford to continue that policy."
He was referring to then-President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 after largely abandoning the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Military officials who thought the debate over strategy and troop levels had been settled when Obama outlined his mission for the region in March expressed concern Tuesday that seesawing politics could stall decisions and leave commanders in Afghanistan with no clear policy or strategy to follow. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the debate publicly.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has urged Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan, said Tuesday, "I've never seen a disconnect like this between the military leadership and the White House on an issue." McCain, who was Obama's opponent in the 2008 presidential election, spoke at a conference hosted by the Washington-based organization, Foreign Policy Initiative.
At the White House, top Obama advisers insist the administration remains committed to its long-stated goal for the war in Afghanistan – disrupting al-Qaida and denying the terrorist organization safe haven on either side of the nation's porous border with Pakistan.
But they remain unconvinced that sending many more U.S. troops to Afghanistan is the way to do it.
"We have an open mind to any argument that is made," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview late Monday on PBS' "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."
She added: "Our goal is to protect the United States of America, our allies, our friends around the world from what is the epicenter of terrorism – namely, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border."
In recent days, the Obama administration has signaled it is narrowing its focus to Pakistan, since military and White House officials alike agree that very few al-Qaida extremists are believed to still be in Afghanistan.
Benchmarks outlined last week for measuring success in the war against insurgents describe the top American goal for the region as disrupting terrorist networks in Afghanistan "and especially Pakistan." White House aides are considering launching more missile strikes against al-Qaida targets inside Pakistan from unmanned spy planes.
And in a rash of television interviews that aired Sunday, Obama himself did not focus on saving Afghanistan. In at least four of the interviews, he did not even mention the Taliban, which is allied with al-Qaida and is seeking to reinstate its rule over Afghanistan after being deposed in a U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Obama also said it's premature to decide whether to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to join the 68,000 who will be there by the end of the year. Fifty-one American troops died there in August, making it the bloodiest month for the U.S. since the war began in October 2001.
One senior military official said stepping up airstrikes might be difficult and more risky to do without additional forces. Without more troops, coalition forces will be able to secure fewer regions, and the insurgents will only have to move to the areas troops vacate.
The confusion led Republicans and some Democrats to renew demands for McChrystal to testify in front of Congress to personally outline the situation in Afghanistan and his request for more troops and how best to go after al-Qaida.
"It now appears President Obama has buyer's remorse," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo. "Congress needs to hear directly from Gen. McChrystal to ensure political motivations here in Washington don't override the needs of our commanders on the ground."
Countering, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said it would be premature for McChrystal to testify until the troop request is delivered to Washington.
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.