Obama is caught in political crossfire

Heated exchange sees John McCain berate President for his 'leisurely pace'

With expectations growing that the White House will announce an amended strategy for the war in Afghanistan within two weeks, President Barack Obama has made clear to members of Congress that neither a rapid surge in troop numbers nor a quick withdrawal of American forces are options he will seriously consider.

A new poll by the Quinnipiac University yesterday suggested that popular support for the war may not be eroding as quickly as other recent surveys have indicated. It said that by a 52 to 37 per cent majority, Americans still think that fighting the war in Afghanistan is "the right thing to do".

Mr Obama is navigating treacherous political cross-currents in Washington as he nears his decision based in part on a report on the progress of the war that was submitted last month by the top US commander on the ground, General Stanley McChrystal.

The report is said to warn bluntly that security conditions are deteriorating and the effort to prevent a Taliban takeover faces failure without an increased military commitment.

Even yesterday, Taliban commanders claimed they had secured control of the remote Kamdesh district of Nuristan province and had staged a symbolic flag-raising ceremony. The advance came just days after Taliban fighters stormed a vulnerable US outpost in the region, killing eight US soldiers and two Afghan personnel, making it the most deadly attack on the US military in the country for over a year.

As he nears his decision on General McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional US troops, Mr Obama was due last night to convene a White House meeting of all of his top foreign policy advisers, including Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, Joe Biden, the Vice President, and General James Jones, the National Security Adviser.

Late on Tuesday, he held a similar meeting with 31 leaders from the US Congress. The gathering further illustrated a deep partisan divide on the issue. While most members of his party express misgivings about deepening America's commitment to the conflict, Republican leaders, notably Senator John McCain, are insisting that Mr Obama pay heed to the warnings of General McChrystal and the Pentagon.

Mr Obama is inevitably sensitive to any suggestions that he is weak on national security issues or slow in making up his mind. His aides insist, by contrast, that the decision is far too profound to be rushed. It seems more likely that Mr Obama will take a middle-of-the-road stance, not granting the troop increases his commanders would like but also not retreating to a narrower set of goals in Afghanistan.

In any event, it is inevitable that his decision is likely to satisfy only a few and disappoint many. But so be it, his aides said this week. "The President is going to make a decision – popular or unpopular – based on what he thinks is in the best interests of the country," his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said.

There were reports last night of a pointed exchange between the President and Senator McCain during the Tuesday meeting with congressional leaders. Mr McCain allegedly warned the man who beat him in the presidential race against allowing himself too "leisurely a pace" in reaching a decision. Mr Obama is said to have replied that no one understood the urgency of making a decision better than he did.

A different poll, published by the Associated Press yesterday, said that only 40 per cent of Americans now backed the war, down from 44 per cent in July. And while 57 per cent of Republican voters would approve of sending more troops to Afghanistan, 57 per cent of Democrats would oppose it.

Even some of Mr Obama's political foes this week acknowledged that the calculus on what do about the war is a complicated one. "We do recognise that he has a tough decision, and he wants ample time to make a good decision," said the House Republican leader, John Boehner. "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."

While Mr McCain warned against Mr Obama taking "half-measures" in Afghanistan, the Democratic leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, put a less partisan spin on the situation. "The one thing that I thought was interesting was that everyone – Democrats and Republicans – said, 'Whatever decision you make, we'll support it.'"

Concern in Democratic quarters is focused not just on the dangers of becoming entangled in an unwinnable war, evoking ghosts of Vietnam, but also on the absence of a credible partner following claims that the August presidential election was riddled with fraud.

Battle of the books: The Vietnam tomes that could shape today's war

In what is being billed as the battle of the books, advisers and strategists in the White House and the Pentagon who are trying to solve the Afghan conundrum have been reaching for two tomes on battle strategy in foreign lands that reach very different conclusions. If you want to find either of them in bookshops anywhere close to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, good luck.

The favoured reading at the Pentagon is A Better War by Lewis Sorley. First published to little acclaim in 1999, it became a bible to counter-insurgency experts during the Iraq war.

Back in the White House, it is Gordon Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster that has mostly been passed from desk to desk. It is a painstaking look at how the national security adviser in the Kennedy and Johnson eras, McGeorge Bundy, marched the US blindly into the conflict in Vietnam with ever-growing troop numbers and how in later life he came to regret it.

Among those to have devoured this tome has been Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's chief of staff, who belongs to the cautious camp in the White House, with the Vice President, Joe Biden.

Once Mr Emanuel was done with the book, he took it to the President. But it turned out that Mr Obama was already midway through his own copy, so Mr Emanuel gave his to Tom Donilon, the deputy national security adviser.

That doesn't mean that A Better War has been consigned to the bottom shelf. Senator John McCain, who advocated the surge in Iraq ordered by George Bush two years ago, has long referred anyone who will listen to its pages, and in 2005, the then US Commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General David Barno, would regularly pass the book out to his staff.

A main thread of A Better War is that after the replacement of General William Westmoreland by General Creighton Abrams in 1968, and with additional troops, the fortunes of the US military in Vietnam began to change. By then, however, support for the war was crumbling at home and the change in strategy was too late.

By contrast, the moral of Goldstein's book might come from Mr Bundy's belated realisation that just putting more troops in play is a tempting but misleading approach. "Bundy said we debated a number and not a use," says Goldstein, referring to troop deployment. "That's a really critical observation which goes to the heart of what's going on right now."

David Usborne

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?