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THE WORLD : White House talks up need for exit strategy : Focus seems aimed at balancing any troop increase in Afghan war.

November 13, 2009|Christi Parsons and Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — The White House sent its strongest signal yet Thursday that it is searching for an eventual way out of Afghanistan even as it considers sending thousands of additional troops to join the war there.

Emphasizing the importance of timetables for U.S. involvement, administration officials stressed that President Obama is concerned about how long American troops will remain in the country and wants to avoid an "open-ended" commitment.

"We have been there for eight years, and we're not going to be there forever," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. "And it's important to fully examine not just how we're going to get folks in but how we're going to get folks out."

The president will not decide on troop levels for at least a week, aides said, as he embarked on an eight-day trip to Asia. Meanwhile, the lengthy review process has grown fractious, with revelations this week that the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan has advised against additional U.S. troops before improvements are made to the government in Kabul.

Until now, administration officials have said little about how they plan to extricate the U.S. from one of its longest wars. The intensified focus on an exit strategy comes as Obama's team plans ways to explain its intentions to an increasingly pessimistic American public. By pairing a troop increase with a credible exit strategy, Obama may be able to meet the twin objectives of escalating the U.S. effort while preventing further erosion in public support.

At the same time, any talk of a time frame could raise fears among Afghans and Pakistanis who want to see a long-term U.S. commitment in the region.

In Washington, political complications continue to arise almost daily. Shortly before the president was to head overseas, news spread that U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry has voiced doubts about building up troops before Afghan President Hamid Karzai demonstrates that he will root out corruption.

The message was delivered privately but leaked to news organizations, a pattern that has come to characterize the president's strategy review, irritating the officials in charge. Normally soft-spoken, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that "everybody out there ought to just shut up."

Some officials said the position staked out by Eikenberry appeared to undercut the American military's insistence that more troops are needed to improve the situation in Afghanistan. His cables indicate that he sees a different set of immediate needs in Afghanistan than does Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of the U.S. and international forces there, said one American official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing internal debates.

The differences pose a concern among some in the government who believe a close working relationship between a field commander and ambassador is critical. They cite the rapport between Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and former Ambassador Ryan Crocker as a factor in turning around the war effort in Iraq.

However, some Defense officials cautioned that Eikenberry and McChrystal may not be as far apart as the disclosures about the cables seem to indicate. One Defense official noted that McChrystal has expressed concerns similar to those detailed by Eikenberry.

"I don't know if they are that far apart," the official said.

Eikenberry also could be casting himself as a "bad cop" in the U.S. relationship with Karzai while McChrystal maintains a more conciliatory approach.

In any case, Eikenberry's assessments drive home the limitations of U.S. influence in trying to pressure Karzai.

"He's saying, 'The only leverage I have left now is the threat that we won't send more troops, so don't take that away from me,' " said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who coordinated Obama's Afghan policy review last spring.

That threat may sound hollow to Karzai, Riedel predicted, because he knows that the Obama administration has so much at stake in the region. "Additional troops are a necessity if we want to stop losing," Riedel said.

If Karzai can't or won't act as a full partner to U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces, their mission will become more difficult. To measure progress, White House officials also renewed their emphasis on a yardstick for judging their own progress and that of the Afghan government.

"The president has asked for and will want benchmarks to evaluate our progress," Gibbs said. "That's part of his desire to get a sense of where we are, rather than committing to an open-ended conflict."

That idea may be widely accepted among the president's political advisors but is a troubling one for the people who actually wage the war.

"Political people want definitive deadlines in war," one official said, "but experienced military people won't say when a war will be over."

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cparsons@latimes.com

julian.barnes@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.

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