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Obama shifts from consensus to instincts on key calls

The Osama Bin Laden raid reinforced the president's increasing tendency to go with his gut on major issues.

June 26, 2011|By Christi Parsons, Washington Bureau

By the time of the Afghanistan troop decision this month, Obama had a new template. He didn't want a battery of meetings in the style of the 2009 review, with all the "leaks and noise," as one aide characterized it. He said that after two years of intensive written reports, discussion and weekly updates from Petraeus and Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, "I am up to speed on what's going on in Afghanistan."

Throughout the year, Obama had built his deliberations into other meetings, starting in January with his regular talks with national security advisor Tom Donilon, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. By June, the calendar was filled with meetings on the subject, including one with the National Security Council staff on June 9, in which he made one idea clear.

"He said we have to send a clear signal that we're serious about transition," one senior administration official said, recalling the president's words. He said Obama added, "If we're going to transition, we're going to have to have reductions."

That would become the key point of the June 15 meeting, when Gates, Clinton and the other principal advisors would gather around the polished wooden table to hear the Petraeus presentation. The general's preferred option: Pull as few as 3,000 troops out this year and fully remove the surge troops only by the end of 2012.

The military wanted more time for U.S. troops to "partner" with Afghan security forces as they rose to the task of securing the country themselves. Military officials raised concerns that the progress to date could backslide, according to one official familiar with their point of view, but they never questioned the importance of transition.

Still, Obama kept returning to the priorities the group had laid out together in 2009. They set goals of defeating Al Qaeda, stopping the Taliban's momentum, clearing out safe havens for terrorists and training Afghan forces. The job, in his view, is not to eradicate the Taliban and "secure the entire country of Afghanistan," said another official familiar with the talks.

The remaining work can be done while withdrawing 33,000 troops by next summer, Obama said. When he explained that idea on June 21 to top appointees, he asked their opinions. All said they could support the plan, although Petraeus and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stipulated that it was against their recommendation.

This time, Obama did not ask for any promises about what they would say in public. He announced his decision the next day.

David S. Cloud in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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