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Obama rules out big cut in Afghan force

At a White House meeting aimed at tempering increasingly politicized debate over the war in Afghanistan, President Obama told congressional leaders Tuesday that he does not plan to dramatically reduce the American troop level or switch to a strictly counter-terrorism mission.

Asking for patience until he completes an assessment of the situation over the next few weeks, the president urged lawmakers to keep their minds open to a nuanced range of options.

Obama did not indicate to the bipartisan group whether he is leaning toward or against a significant troop escalation. Instead, he suggested he is looking at the middle range of the spectrum, somewhere between a major increase in forces and a large drawdown.

“The president reiterated that we need this debate to be honest and dispense with the straw man argument that this is about either doubling down or leaving Afghanistan,” one senior administration official said after the meeting ended.

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Still, the 90-minute session demonstrated the growing pressures on the president, who has to contend with many fellow Democrats hesitant to increase American troop levels and Republicans eager to boost the war effort. Several people in attendance said some Republicans openly embraced the recent analysis of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in the Afghanistan effort, who has recommended sending as many as 40,000 additional troops.

Republican lawmakers expressed concerns about how long Obama is taking to review the war strategy, saying U.S. troops need more support now and that a delay is putting them at higher risk.

“Their recommendations should be given great weight, given their successes in the past,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), recounting the highlights of the meeting.

The meeting came after several days in which conversations taking place within the White House have spilled outside, with the September leak of McChrystal’s report followed by an unusually public discussion of his ideas and of contending points of view.

Within the confines of the White House, Vice President Joe Biden has voiced support for maintaining roughly the current level of 68,000 troops, with a shift in strategy toward airstrikes and special forces operations.

Meanwhile, McChrystal has reportedly requested a troop increase of 20,000 to 40,000 troops. The number has not been disclosed, but some in Washington have treated the reported figures as though they are official.

McChrystal said in a speech last week that he doesn’t think a modest option would achieve the desired goals. On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that presidential advisors should keep their guidance private.

Though previously at pains to conduct his evaluation quietly, the president Tuesday departed from that strategy to take firmer command of the argument.

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In a morning visit to the National Counterterrorism Center, Obama touted the success of U.S. strikes against Al Qaeda, saying the terrorist network has “not only lost operational capacity, they’ve lost legitimacy and credibility.”

The appearance was seen by some as a move to add credibility to the argument that the United States may not need to expand its military presence in Afghanistan to keep Al Qaeda on the defensive.

The afternoon congressional summit appeared designed to be an olive branch to Republican lawmakers not invited to the White House in half a year. Afterward, they flocked to microphones set up outside the West Wing to voice support for a troop increase should the generals advocate one.

If the president decides to follow that course, he’ll do so with GOP lawmakers already publicly committed to the idea -- no small political matter given the waning public support for the war.

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In all, more than 30 lawmakers sat down with Obama at a long table in the State Dining Room.

Obama spoke first, updating lawmakers on the process of his review and making it clear that he was seeking their input, a senior administration official said. He also discussed some of the themes he covered during the morning appearance.

The president is not entertaining any plans that would dramatically cut the number of troops in Afghanistan, the official said, nor does he intend to task them strictly with ferreting out terrorists.

“The president was clear that he will make the decision that he thinks will best prevent future attacks on the American homeland and our allies,” said the official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the meeting.

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Obama also said that “his decision won’t make everybody in the room or the nation happy,” but he promised to work on a “collaborative basis with the understanding that everyone wants what is best for the country.”

The group talked about a wide variety of options, including Biden’s contention that a more narrowly drawn strategy that simply targets Al Qaeda might be preferable.

One question that arose is whether it is possible to target Al Qaeda without also going after the Taliban, a modified strategy that is among those under consideration.

“There was a bipartisan sense that it may be the case the Taliban is as important a target as Al Qaeda, said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican whip.

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Both Cantor and Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of Santa Clarita, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said there was less unanimity on the Democratic side about policy options, with some in favor of a troop expansion and others echoing the unpopularity of the war among the American public.

McKeon said that there was no suggestion from the White House that members should mute their critique of the potential policy options.

Obama said that when he makes his decision, “he will take it to the American public,” McKeon said. “He said that many people in this room will not be happy with it and many Americans will not be happy with it.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the consensus in the room was that Obama could count on the support of Republicans and Democrats alike no matter what he decides to do.

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“Everyone, Democrats and Republicans, said, ‘Whatever decision you make, we will support it,’ ” Reid said.

The top Senate Republican, however, didn’t remember it quite that way.

“I hope that at the end of the day, the president will follow the advice of some of our finest generals, who, we believe, know what it would take to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, prevent the comeback of the Taliban and, obviously, prevent a haven for Al Qaeda,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

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cparsons@latimes.com

joliphant@latimes.com

Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.


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