WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday ruled out shrinking the Afghanistan war to a counterterrorism campaign. But he did not signal whether he is prepared to send any more troops to the war zone — either the 40,000 his top commander wants or a smaller buildup, according to several officials.
House and Senate leaders from both parties emerged from a nearly 90-minute conversation with Obama with praise for his candor and interest in listening. But politically speaking, all sides appeared to exit where they entered, with Republicans pushing Obama to follow his military commanders and Democrats saying he should not be rushed.
Obama is examining how to proceed with a worsening war that has claimed nearly 800 U.S. lives and sapped American patience. Launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to defeat the Taliban and rid al-Qaida of a home base, the war has lasted longer than ever envisioned — eight years as of Wednesday.
Obama said the war would not be reduced to a narrowly defined counterterrorism effort, with the withdrawal of many U.S. forces and an emphasis on special operations forces that target terrorists in the dangerous border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Two senior administration officials say such a scenario has been inaccurately characterized and linked to Vice President Joe Biden, and that Obama wanted to make clear he is considering no such plan.
The president did not show his hand on troop increases. His top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has bluntly warned that more troops are needed to right the war, perhaps up to 40,000 more. Obama has already added 21,000 troops this year, raising the total to 68,000.
Obama also gave no timetable for a decision, which prompted at least one pointed exchange.
Inside the State Dining Room, where the meeting was held, Obama’s Republican opponent in last year’s presidential race, Sen. John McCain, told Obama that he should not move at a “leisurely pace,” according to people in the room.
That comment later drew a sharp response from Obama, they said. Obama said no one felt more urgency than he did about the war, and there would be nothing leisurely about it.
Obama may be considering a more modest building of troops — closer to 10,000 than 40,000 — according to Republican and Democratic congressional aides. But White House aides said no such decision has been made.
The president insisted that he will make a decision on troops after settling on the strategy ahead. He told lawmakers he will be deliberate yet show urgency.
“We do recognize that he has a tough decision, and he wants ample time to make a good decision,” said 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.”
What’s clear is that the mission in Afghanistan is not changing. Obama said his focus is to keep al-Qaida terrorists from having a base from which to launch attacks on the U.S or its allies. He heard from 18 lawmakers and said he would keep seeking such input even knowing his final decision would not please them all.
Several lawmakers described the exchanges as helpful and open. Different views emerged over just how much backing the president will get.
“The one thing that I think was interesting is that everyone, Democrats and Republicans, said, ‘Whatever decision you make, we’ll support it,’ basically,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “So we’ll see.”
The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said later: “I think Republicans will be able to make the decisions for themselves.” But he added that Obama is likely to get significant Republican support if he follows the advice of his military commanders. Boehner agreed, saying “my colleagues on the House side will be there to support” Obama if he stays true to the mission of denying a haven for al-Qaida terrorists or Taliban militants who are fiercely fighting coalition forces.
Obama’s emphasis on working off a strong strategy did not mean he shed much light on what it would be. He did, though, seek to “dispense with the more extreme options on either side of the debate,” as one administration official put it. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the closed-door meeting.
The president made clear he would not “double down” in Afghanistan and build up U.S forces into the hundreds of thousands, just as he ruled out withdrawing forces and focusing on a narrow counterterrorism strategy.
“Half-measures is what I worry about,” McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters. He said Obama should follow recommendations from those in uniform and dispatch thousands of more troops to the country — similar to what President George W. Bush did during the 2008 troop “surge” in Iraq.
Public support for the war in Afghanistan is dropping. It stands at 40 percent, down from 44 percent in July, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. A total of 69 percent of self-described Republicans in the poll favor sending more troops, while 57 percent of self-described Democrats oppose it.
The White House said Obama won’t base his decisions on the mood on Capitol Hill or eroding public support for the war.
“The president is going to make a decision — popular or unpopular — based on what he thinks is in the best interests of the country,” press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.
Associated Press writers Pamela Hess, Jim Kuhnhenn, Anne Flaherty, Anne Gearan, Jennifer Loven, Robert Burns, Philip Elliott and Charles Babington contributed to this report.