Obama to Congress: I won't cut troop levels in Af-Pak theater

Barack Obama faced a bipartisan group of Congressional leadership that have him at the center of a tug-of-war over the mission in Afghanistan.  Democrats want Obama to cut troop levels and commit to an “exit strategy” that limits the length of the war, while Republicans want Obama to adopt General Stanley McChrystal’s strategy of increased resourcing and better counterinsurgency tactics.  Obama signaled that he won’t cut troop levels, but he may not increase them, either — and that may not be his choice in the end:

Congressional leaders left a rare bipartisan meeting with President Obama on Tuesday divided over what strategy the administration should adopt to fight an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan and how quickly it must do so to protect U.S. forces already on the ground.

Obama called congressional leaders to the White House at a key moment in his Afghanistan policy review, which will determine whether the United States pushes deeper into a war that military officials have warned will probably be won or lost over the next 12 months.

Congress must approve any additional resources that Obama would need if he accepts the recommendations of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, who favors a broad expansion of the effort on the battlefield and the push to build a stable national government. But much of the president’s party is resisting calls for more combat troops after eight years of war, forcing him to seek support from Republicans who favor McChrystal’s strategy. …

Obama told congressional leaders that he is not contemplating reducing troop levels in the near term under any scenario, according to several participants, and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated Tuesday that withdrawing from Afghanistan is “not an option.” A complete U.S. troop withdrawal is one of the straw men to which Kerry — and the president, in the meeting — referred.

If that’s a strawman, then Obama can thank his own party for it.  Democrats have been talking about “retreats over an event horizon” for years.  Joe Biden floated a notion last week that would have set up the US to use remote strikes with much fewer troops on the ground, which won’t work because the troops on the ground get the intel to make the strikes effective.  And Congressional Democrats have resurrected the “timetable” demands for a commitment to withdrawal as a condition of further funding of the mission in the short term.

Thankfully, Obama has resisted those calls, and appears to remain firm in that resistance still.  However, even if Obama wanted to adopt McChrystal’s strategy, he will have a large hurdle in getting the funding through Congress.  Republicans would happily support Obama, but Democrats are already balking at the current troop levels and the continued commitment to Afghanistan.  Nancy Pelosi openly questioned the President’s support for the Karzai government, with its corruption and competence problems, which has given war opponents an opening for pushing withdrawal.  Considering the financial problems facing the US for the next several decades, some Democrats — and perhaps enough in this Congress — may balk at spending the money to increase troop levels by 40,000, almost twice the number of troops George Bush sent to Iraq in the “surge” of early 2007.

Obama still needs to make a decision and press Congress to do what is right, rather than what is expedient, to defeat our enemies.  However, given the hostility toward the mission on Capitol Hill among Obama’s own party, he may find his choices limited.