White House: Afghan troop decision within weeks

November 1, 2009 1:51:10 PM PST
Top Obama administration officials pledged Sunday to work with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, despite continuing doubts about his credibility that could have been eased had he won a runoff election against his top challenger, who dropped out citing concerns of fraud.

The decision Sunday by former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah to quit the runoff, less than a week before it was set to happen, creates yet another headache for the White House as it struggles to draw up a new battle plan for the eight-year Afghanistan war - including whether to send tens of thousands more U.S. troops to fight.

"We are going to deal with the government that is there," senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said. "And obviously there are issues we need to discuss, such as reducing the high level of corruption. These are issues we'll take up with President Karzai."

Axelrod said Obama would announce a war strategy "within weeks." A senior U.S. official told The Associated Press that Obama has still not yet decided what to do, and it remains unclear whether he will decide before he goes to Asia on Nov. 11.

The official said a Karzai victory would have given the sitting Afghan president more legitimacy in the wake of widespread charges of fraud during the initial election in August, in which he collected 48 percent of the vote. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to speak more frankly about Obama's decision-making process.

Still, Karzai's re-election was all but universally expected among U.S. officials who have been planning for weeks on how to help his government move forward.

"Karzai was going to win anyway. So what now?" Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said Sunday in an AP interview from Dubai as he headed back to the United States after three days in Afghanistan.

Had a runoff occurred, "that would make me think that he's more credible," said Hunter, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "But we can't force Abdullah to run. Let's get past that and say, 'Karzai, step up."'

It was still not clear Sunday whether a runoff election would be held anyway, but an announcement canceling it was expected as early as Monday.

In a statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Abdullah and said, "It is now a matter for the Afghan authorities to decide on a way ahead that brings this electoral process to a conclusion in line with the Afghan constitution."

For months, the Obama administration has been grappling with whether to continue targeting the Taliban with more U.S. forces in an increasingly deadly war in Afghanistan, or to focus on eliminating al-Qaida and other terrorists with unmanned spy planes in Pakistan.

About 68,000 American troops already have been ordered to report to Afghanistan by the end of the year. The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, wants the Pentagon to send him an additional 40,000 troops to prevent the Taliban from letting al-Qaida once again use Afghanistan as a haven - as it was in the days leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The White House has signaled it will probably send more forces, but fewer than what McChrystal wants. The senior U.S. official said Sunday that Obama's national security team is trying to define a "sufficiency standard" - sending a sufficient number of U.S. troops to provide a sufficient level of security and allow sufficient growth of governance and economic development to stabilize Afghanistan over the next three to five years.

Abdullah's withdrawal, in effect, handed Karzai an uncontested win that puts Obama "in a difficult position," said Karin von Hippel, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"We need a credible partner to make things happen," said von Hippel, who was still planning to head to Afghanistan on Monday to serve as an election observer should the Nov. 7 vote be held. "It's possible that Karzai can be a credible partner, but he really hasn't been in the last few years. And he needs to change the way he governs to become that."

Hunter and Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, called anew for Obama to heed McChrystal's request for additional forces. "It's time to send more help," Lieberman said.

Once a Democrat, the hawkish Lieberman said the Obama administration needs to start working with Karzai, whom he praised.

"I think it's time for us to stop beating up on President Karzai and start building up President Karzai and his government to be the government we need," Lieberman said. "Because they're not the enemy. The enemy is the Taliban."

Valerie Jarrett, another senior White House adviser, said Abdullah's withdrawal would not "complicate" Obama's strategy decision. She did not mention Karzai specifically.

"We're going to work with the leader of the Afghan government and hopefully that's going to improve the state of conditions for the people in Afghanistan, and also help us as we try to bring this war to a close," Jarrett said.

Axelrod and Lieberman spoke on CBS' "Face the Nation," and Jarrett appeared on ABC's "This Week."


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