Decision day looms for Obama's troop dilemma

President accused of dithering by Republicans as opposition to war grows

President Barack Obama will take final soundings this morning from his top military and foreign policy aides on a new strategy for Afghanistan that is expected to include a significant increase in the number of American troops on the ground, although their deployment may only be gradual. Some irritation has been expressed from inside the White House over repeated leaks suggesting Mr Obama has already decided to come close to meeting the request for 40,000 more soldiers sent to him almost three months ago by his commander there, General Stanley McChrystal. Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, told reporters that three separate options will be on the table at the meeting this morning.

Mr Obama was yesterday visiting Fort Hood Army base, for a memorial service for the 13 people killed in last Thursday's shooting rampage. The spokesman did not offer reporters covering the visit any more detail, and said that those reporting that a decision had already been made "don't have the slightest idea what they're talking about".

Sources continue to claim, however, that Mr Obama favours a plan that might be described as "McChrystal-Lite", in part because of the slower deployment envisaged. It is true that an announcement may have to wait until the end of the month as the President leaves tomorrow for an eight-day tour of Asia.

"We don't have a roll-out date," Ben Rhodes, director of communications at the National Security Council, said. The reason for this, he added, was that Mr Obama had not yet made up his mind. There are 68,000 US troops already in Afghanistan.

The same message was delivered in a testy statement late Monday from his National Security Advisor, James Jones. "Reports that President Obama has made a decision about Afghanistan are absolutely false," he said in response to CBS and the Associated Press. "He has not received final options for his consideration, he has not reviewed those options with his national security team, and he has not made any decisions about resources. Any reports to the contrary are completely untrue."

The pressure on Mr Obama, the US Commander-in-Chief, to reveal his thinking on Afghanistan has been fierce from all sides. Moreover, there is every possibility that the sudden flurry of news stories suggesting he has reached a decision are originating from sources inside the military who hope to bounce him into giving General McChrystal the soldiers he wants.

As Mr Obama ponders his options, some Republicans have accused him of dithering. He also knows that support for the war is softening – not just domestically but also among those US allies who are making major contributions to the war effort, not least among them Britain. For all the same reasons, however, the decisions facing the President are delicate ones and involve far more than the headline request made by General McChrystal for more troops. Mr Obama will be seeking to reassure the country that he has a very clear vision of what the US will be doing in Afghanistan, where the insurgency by Taliban fighters and followers of al-Qa'ida has become more, not less, deadly and difficult.

Speaking to ABC News on Monday, Mr Obama underlined the complexity of the issues involved, saying he had been asking "not only General McChrystal but all of our commanders who are familiar with the situation, as well as our civilian folks on the ground, a lot of questions that, until they're answered, may create a situation in which we resource something based on faulty premises."

Mr Obama said it was important to make sure "if we are sending additional troops, that the prospects of a functioning Afghan government are enhanced, that the prospects of al-Qa'ida being able to attack the US homeland are reduced".

Few in Washington now doubt that a significant new influx of US troops will be ordered by the President.

Military Scenarios: The three options

1. Minimal Reinforcements

If Barack Obama opts to send just 10,000 more troops it would mean he has been won over to the view of Vice-President Joe Biden who has argued strongly against a large-scale increase. Mr Biden wants a counter-terrorist rather than counter- insurgency mission, and wants to concentrate forces on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to hunt al-Qa'ida with special forces and unmanned aircraft. The signs from Washington, however, are that Mr Obama has already rejected this view, and in Afghanistan it is being dismissed as the counter-productive posturings of an armchair general.

2. 'McChrystal-Lite': US sends in 30,000

This is supposed to be the preferred option of the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. Mr Gates is said to have had initial doubts about large-scale Afghan reinforcements but he has been won over by the military commanders. However Mr Gates is also said to feel that not enough has been done on the border to counter al-Qa'ida and that sending a larger number of troops would mean that the counter-terrorism aspects of the mission can be addressed as well. This so-called "McChrystal-lite" strategy may well be the option that President Obama goes for.

3. McChrystal gets his way

According to this option, 40,000 more US troops would be deployed and if the offensive against the Taliban fails, the White House can be absolved of blame. It would allow the US-led Nato forces to retake areas from the Taliban, hold them while Afghan forces get trained up, allowing reconstruction to take place. Critics say that despite General McChrystal's reassurances, there would be too much dependence on firepower. There is also the view that the European Nato countries should do much more. Sending 40,000 troops turns this into America's war, giving reluctant nations an excuse to pull out.