WASHINGTON — Faced with a grim assessment of the Afghan war from his top commander and opposition from leading Democrats, President Obama has begun a wholesale reevaluation of the military effort that could alter the strategic aims of the American mission.
The review could result in a scaling back of efforts to reform Afghanistan's politics and develop its economy. The U.S. could then focus more on hunting down Al Qaeda and its close allies with small special operations teams and armed Predator drones. Such an effort could avert the need for additional troops, officials and experts said.
For weeks, military officials have been laying the groundwork to request additional troops. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, warned in a classified assessment that the Afghan mission risked failure if more troops were not sent. A declassified version of McChrystal's assessment became public after it was leaked to the Washington Post website this week.
However, the White House has asked McChrystal not to formally submit his request for more troops, and the command in Afghanistan is holding his recommendation while the administration reviews his assessment, military and government officials said.
In recent comments, including several televised interviews over the weekend, Obama appeared to question the premise underlying the current U.S. approach, a strategy he approved only last March. White House officials did little to publicly clarify the situation Monday, saying only that Obama was intent on completing a "strategic assessment" before making any decisions on more troops.
The rekindled debate came as a shock to some officials who considered broad U.S. strategy in Afghanistan to be a settled issue. Military officials were scrambling Monday to determine how drastic any changes might be.
"The time for this discussion was back in November 2008," said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing the internal debate.
In part, the shift in the White House stance came after Obama ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to help with last month's Afghan national election, a ballot widely seen as fraudulent. But the debate goes deeper than troop levels.
Obama has questioned whether McChrystal's broad counterinsurgency strategy -- combating corruption, improving government and economic development -- is worth committing the extra troops it requires.
The administration's alternative would be a narrow objective focusing primarily on disrupting Al Qaeda, as well as the leadership of the Taliban or other extremist groups, which would require fewer than the 68,000 troops currently approved for the war.
Appearing on CNN on Sunday, Obama asked, "Are we pursuing the right strategy?" On NBC, he said he would expand the counterinsurgency effort only if it contributed to the goal of defeating Al Qaeda.
"I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan . . . or sending a message that America is here for the duration," Obama said.
After Obama approved the strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March, military officials moved to implement a counterinsurgency approach. At the same time, Pentagon officials replaced the former top Afghanistan commander, Gen. David D. McKiernan, with McChrystal.
McChrystal had led special operations forces against Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he quickly outlined a strategy to expand efforts to protect the Afghan people from the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
"He, of all our military leaders, understands the Al Qaeda threat," said a former military official who has advised the Obama administration on Afghan policy. "When he comes back with a broad-based, counterinsurgency mission, it is extraordinarily credible."
It is not yet clear how many more troops McChrystal's strategy would require.
But several top administration officials have harbored doubts about the wisdom of a stepped-up counterinsurgency plan.
Vice President Joe Biden and presidential Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have been among the strongest voices advocating a more limited mission in Afghanistan, a number of officials said.
The dissenting view has been strengthened by fraud and irregularities in the Afghan election, growing war doubts among congressional Democrats and falling support among Americans. Recent developments have strengthened the argument that a strategy to build support for Afghanistan's central government is fundamentally flawed.
Obama signaled last week, in an appearance with the Canadian prime minister, that a deeper administration review was underway. "It's important that we also do an assessment on the civilian side, the diplomatic side, the development side, that we analyze the results of the election, and then make further decisions moving forward," he said.