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