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Obama's Afghan troop conundrum

Mark Mardell | 15:39 UK time, Wednesday, 14 October 2009

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown says he's willing to send 500 more troops if Nato allies do more. Of course the biggest Nato ally is the US. How many is Barack Obama prepared to send?

The word around Washington is that General Stanley McChrystal has given the president a "Goldilocks" choice of numbers - hot, cold and just right. Ten-thousand: too little. Eighty-thousand: unrealistically high. Forty-thousand: just right, for the general if not the politicians.

The debate within the White House has often been characterised as a conflict between those, like the general, who want troop-heavy state-building and those who want to concentrate on counter-terrorism: scaling back to attacking potential terrorists. I have been searching for those who back the latter view, said to be favoured by the vice-president, and do you know what? In this town I think I have a better chance of discovering a unicorn hiding under Dupont Circle.

Of course, there are senior senators who doubt the wisdom of sending so many troops. There are many who think the elections were too flawed and the government too corrupt for the Afghans to be proper partners in such an enterprise. But that is not the same as proposing a coherent military or diplomatic strategy to put in its place. My fruitless search may be the result of the fact that the most senior people in this town's many excellent foreign policy think tanks, and those whose opinion carries the most weight, are often ex-military, ex-administration, ex-intelligence community.

Of course they have a wide range of views but, like a heated discussion within a religious community, the debate takes place within the boundary of common assumptions. This interesting article argues the world would be different if LBJ had listened to writers, not generals, and that Obama should be listening to free thinkers.

But my hunch is that I should be looking for a straw man, not a unicorn. One of those senior figures said to me recently: "I keep trying to write that speech where Obama turns down McChrystal's request. I can't do it." I am sure Obama would like to send as few troops as possible but I, too, think that the debate is, in part, to demonstrate to the vocal critics in his own party that he has looked at all the options and there is no alternative. But I could be wrong. We'll know within weeks.

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