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Key players in the U.S. debate on Afghanistan policy

A look at the views of some administration officials as Obama revisits U.S. strategy for the war.

October 17, 2009

The Obama administration's debate over Afghanistan is illuminating differences within a national security team previously known for conducting business behind closed doors with little fuss or dissent. In five White House sessions, military leaders intent on getting more firepower have been seated beside civilian officials fearful of political fallout from an escalation of the war. Key players have hedged on questions of strategy and troop levels. There have been signs of a compromise that would tell allies that the United States remains committed to Afghanistan while reassuring Americans that the goals are limited. Here are the views of some top players:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal

Commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan

McChrystal became the protagonist in the debate after he asked for 40,000 more troops to better protect the Afghan people and train security forces. President Obama is likely to come under heavy criticism from conservatives if he does not meet the request.

McChrystal's appointment in Afghanistan was pushed by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff. The general was chastised by administration officials for publicly criticizing a more limited approach, yet he retains White House and Pentagon support.

Joe Biden

Vice president

The most vocal critic of the McChrystal approach, Biden has argued that the administration should hold off on any troop buildup and focus its efforts on America's top enemy, Al Qaeda.

The administration settled on an ambitious strategy and ordered more troops to Afghanistan in March. But Biden believes there are major problems, including a weak Afghan government hobbled by a tainted election, and an increasingly violent Taliban onslaught. He also is worried about dwindling public support. However, he has sought to emphasize that he is open to compromise.

Robert M. Gates

Defense secretary

Initially, Gates was skeptical of further troop increases, saying a larger U.S. footprint probably would prove counterproductive. But he signaled last month that he was open to a buildup based on McChrystal's assessment.

Gates, a student of Afghanistan's long history of wars, has held his cards close, and some officials believe he is open to compromise, while others think he will back McChrystal's plan. His views are expected to carry some weight with Obama.

Hillary Rodham Clinton

Secretary of State

Clinton's public statements have suggested that she would back McChrystal's request. Over the summer, she equated the Taliban with Al Qaeda and said that "terrorism anywhere is a threat to everywhere."

More recently, she has backtracked on her view of the Taliban threat.

Still, some U.S. officials say she remains uncommitted as she evaluates the details of McChrystal's proposal. Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, is a close ally of Clinton.

Rahm Emanuel

White House chief of staff

Emanuel told Obama early in the year that committing to a risky war in Afghanistan could threaten his presidency. Emanuel hasn't attended the war council sessions, yet his influence with Obama is considered substantial.

He has questioned whether the Afghan government is a reliable partner for the United States and whether an all-out counterinsurgency strategy can succeed.

Emanuel is among influential officials in the White House and at other agencies who are believed to be concerned about a U.S. overcommitment.

James L. Jones

White House national

security advisor

Last year, Jones headed a study group that called for a military buildup in Afghanistan. But the retired Marine general warned military officials this summer that an additional troop request would not be welcome at the White House.

Jones has been careful in his public comments on the issue, but administration officials have said he is opposed to McChrystal's troop request.


Compiled by staff writers Paul Richter, Julian E. Barnes, Christi Parsons and Greg Miller in Washington.

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