WASHINGTON — The Afghanistan war reached its once-unthinkable eighth anniversary Wednesday as President Barack Obama, seeking a revamped strategy for the increasingly unpopular conflict, focused more closely with his war council on neighboring Pakistan's role in the fight against al-Qaida.
The White House also revealed that Obama has in hand – and has for nearly a week – the troop request prepared by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. It is said to include a range of options, from adding as few as 10,000 additional combat troops to – McChrystal's strong preference – as many as 40,000.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama asked for McChrystal's request last Thursday, before he flew to Copenhagen where he lobbied for Chicago's bid to host the Olympics and met with the general on the sidelines. The numbers could become the focus of concentrated White House attention as soon as Friday, Gibbs said.
When former President George W. Bush launched the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan less than a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the country's Taliban government was providing safe haven for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorists. Eight years later, the Taliban regime is no more and al-Qaida is scattered and weakened. But the Afghan government is considered corrupt and ineffective, Taliban insurgents hoping to retake control are gaining strength and terrorists continue to plan attacks.
This uncertain progress has come at a cost of nearly 800 U.S. lives.
With this and Americans' dwindling patience in mind, Obama is engaged in a methodical review of how to overhaul the war.
Wednesday's nearly three-hour meeting in the Situation Room between Obama and more than a dozen of his top advisers on the war was the third of five currently scheduled. The next is Friday, concentrating on Afghanistan – though it could also include McChrystal's report. The final discussion is slated for next week, though aides have said more could come.
Gibbs said Obama's decision is still weeks away.
Wednesday's focus on Pakistan, the suspected hiding place of bin Laden and other al-Qaida terrorists as well as Taliban leaders, could provide a hint into the president's leanings.
Obama and some of his key aides are increasingly pointing to recent successes against al-Qaida through targeted missile strikes and raids in Pakistan but also in Somalia and elsewhere. Obama said Tuesday that al-Qaida has "lost operational capacity" as a result.
Also, serious doubts about the Afghan government that only deepened with the questionable Aug. 20 presidential election make a true counterinsurgency mission there difficult. Intense poverty and other troubles in the "graveyard of empires" make it an even more complicated pursuit.
In Pakistan, though, the government has shown new willingness to battle extremists, with most believed to be operating from the largely ungoverned terrain along the border with Afghanistan. But these operations, as well as the strikes by unmanned U.S. aircraft, continue to stoke fiery controversy throughout the country – causing problems for the already weak U.S.-backed civilian government.
Further, the vast majority of the U.S. aid to Pakistan is believed to be diverted from its intended purpose of battling militants. A bill awaiting Obama's signature would triple U.S. aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year while attaching conditions aimed at stopping that diversion. Those protections, however, have prompted fresh complaints in Pakistan about Washington meddling – including a rejection by the country's powerful military of links between aid and increased monitoring.
All this makes the U.S.-Pakistan relationship fraught, and asking for additional cooperation extraordinarily delicate. Regardless, U.S. officials believe they can neither win in Afghanistan nor succeed more broadly against al-Qaida without it.
Wednesday's White House meeting began with intelligence and political assessments from key players. The ensuing discussion focused on possible ways to gain additional help from Pakistan, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal details. That includes efforts on diplomatic and civilian fronts, as well as military.
A senior government official, also talking on condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the talks, said the discussion continued a genuine debate among advisers in which Obama remains undecided.
McChrystal's recommended approach calls for additional troops in Afghanistan for a counterinsurgency campaign to defeat the Taliban, build up the central government and deny al-Qaida safe haven. McChrystal, whose plan is somewhat reminiscent of Bush's Iraq troop "surge" in 2008, says extra troops – preferably at the higher end of his option range – are crucial to turn around a war that will probably be won or lost over the next 12 months.
On roughly the opposite end of the spectrum, an alternative favored most prominently by Vice President Joe Biden would keep the American force in Afghanistan at around the 68,000 already authorized, including the 21,000 more troops Obama ordered earlier this year, but increase the use of surgical strikes with Predator drones and special forces.
Shrinking the number of troops in Afghanistan and turning the effort into a narrow counterterror campaign is not on the table, and neither is drastically ballooning the footprint.
In weighing whether to follow McChrystal or Biden or land somewhere in between, Obama faces a stern test and difficult politics.
Many lawmakers from his own Democratic Party, aware of rising anti-war sentiment in their ranks and the war protests that have dotted Washington this week, do not want to see additional U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan. According to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, public support for the war has dropped to 40 percent from 44 percent in July.
Republicans, meanwhile, are urging Obama to heed the military commanders' calls soon or risk failure.
In giving McChrystal's request to Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates bypassed the commander's direct bosses in the military chain of command who would ordinarily have a chance to add their own comments first.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell denied the unorthodox move provides evidence of a divide between the uniformed military and its civilian bosses over management of the war. He said Gates and Obama wanted to prevent a leak to the news media, as McChrystal's underlying war assessment was last month.
And though Gibbs had said previously that Obama didn't want to see the request until he had decided strategy, aides said the president decided it had simply become absurd to wait to read it.
Attending the White House meeting Wednesday was a now-familiar cast of characters including Biden; Gates; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Afghanistan/Pakistan special envoy Richard Holbrooke; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the region including Iraq and Afghanistan, and McChrystal by videoconference.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan and Pamela Hess contributed to this report.