WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama has huddled with his war cabinet for what officials indicated could be the final time before he decides whether to dispatch tens of thousands more US troops to Afghanistan.
Top officials at the two-hour meeting on Monday night, the ninth gathering of Obama’s national security team to review Afghan strategy since August, included Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The meeting began just before 8:15 pm (0115 GMT Tuesday) and lasted around two hours.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that a decision on troops could be announced as early as next week.
“It’s not going to happen this week,” he said. “Obviously the first possible time would be some time next week.”
National Public Radio, citing unnamed sources, said that the president plans to make the announcement in an address to the nation on December 1.
An administration official said Monday could “possibly” be the last time Obama will consult his team before making an announcement, though he cautioned “that’s not something we can say definitively.”
Attending the war meeting via video conference were two men very much at odds over the decision: General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, and Karl Eikenberry, US ambassador in Kabul.
McChrystal has asked for around 40,000 more US troops, cautioning that the intensifying Taliban insurgency could win out if he does not get the reinforcements within a year.
Currently, there are 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
In diplomatic cables leaked earlier this month, Eikenberry — a retired army general who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 — warned against sending more troops until Afghan President Hamid Karzai gets a grip on the rampant corruption in his administration.
While Karzai has earned the opprobrium of the international community since a fraud-tainted election in August highlighted the massive levels of official graft in Afghanistan, his inauguration speech Thursday generally won praise.
He pledged to clean up corruption, eradicate drug production and trafficking, work towards ending a Taliban-led insurgency, and see that Afghan security forces can take over from international forces in five years.
Clinton, attending the inauguration, sought to turn the page and hailed the speech as a “new starting point” for the war-torn country.
But some of America’s allies in the war, now in its ninth year, are no longer willing to wait for the tide to turn: Canada and the Netherlands have announced plans to pull their troops out in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
Gates in a speech in Canada Friday said US forces could provide a “sustainable” replacement in the south for the departing Dutch and Canadian troops.
But he called on other allies to step forward, saying the Afghan effort will “require more commitment, more sacrifice, and more patience from the community of free nations.”
Those tensions now look set to dominate a December 3-4 meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.
But Obama also faces opposition to the dispatch of more troops from members of his own Democratic Party who question the wisdom of deploying additional soldiers.
Polls show the American public is becoming increasingly disillusioned with the war, and some fear a deepening military commitment could dominate his presidency, as Vietnam did Lyndon Johnson’s in the 1960s.
But the military strongly favors a so-called surge, and Obama risks being denounced by Republican critics as weak on national security if he refuses McChrystal’s request.
More than 800 US soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan and the number of casualties is rising. October was the deadliest month for US forces there since 2001 and another four US fatalities were reported Monday.