World and Nation

Obama Advisers Are Split On Size of Afghan Force

The military’s anticipated request for more troops to combat the insurgency in Afghanistan has divided senior advisers to President Barack Obama as they try to determine the proper size and mission of the U.S. effort there, officials said Thursday.

Even before the top commander in Afghanistan submits his proposal for additional forces, administration officials have begun what one called a “healthy debate” about what the priorities should be and whether more U.S. soldiers and Marines on the ground would help achieve them.

Leading the skeptics is Vice President Joe Biden, who has expressed deep reservations about an expanded presence in Afghanistan on the grounds that it may distract from what he considers the more urgent goal of stabilizing Pakistan, officials said.

Among those on the other side are Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative to the region, who shares the concern about Pakistan but sees more troops as vital to protecting Afghan civilians and ultimately undermining the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been vocal during previous internal discussions in favor of more troops and while some officials said she had not showed her hand during the current deliberations, they expected her to be an advocate for a more robust force.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has voiced concern that putting so many troops in Afghanistan would make the United States look like an occupier, but during a news conference on Thursday, he sounded more supportive of the prospect.

“There is a unanimity of opinion about what our objective is and the objective is to disable and destroy al-Qaida and remove that threat to our national security,” said David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser. “Obviously, there are a variety of opinions about how best to achieve that objective and it’s valuable and important to hear those views.”

The emerging debate follows the delivery Monday of a new strategic assessment by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the president’s hand-picked commander who took over all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in June. Gates has now forwarded the general’s report of about 25 pages to Obama, who took it with him to Camp David on Wednesday to review during the long holiday weekend.

Although McChrystal included no specific force proposals in his review, officials expect him to send a separate request in the coming weeks. Military strategists, including one who has advised McChrystal, said he may offer three options. The smallest proposed reinforcement, between 10,000 and 15,000 additional troops, would be described as the high-risk option. A medium-risk option would involve sending about 25,000 more troops and a low-risk option would call for sending about 45,000 troops.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, cautioned that talk about troop levels was speculation. “Anyone who tells you that they know how many troops the commander is going to ask for and the options he may or may not present doesn’t know what he’s talking about, because that has not been determined yet,” Morrell said. He said that Gates had not made up his mind about what he would recommend to the president.