President summons congressional leaders on Afghanistan strategy

Congressional leaders from both parties will head to the White House on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the worsening situation in Afghanistan.


The meeting comes amid mounting casualties in the eight-year war and as President Barack Obama weighs a pending request for 40,000 more troops from the leading commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

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It is the first time in six months that House Republican leaders have been invited to the White House to discuss official business; Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are both scheduled to attend. If Obama decides to send all the troops McChrystal wants, he will probably need Republican votes to sustain the escalation.

National Security Adviser Gen. Jim  Jones will brief the full House on the Afghanistan situation in a closed meeting later this week in the Capitol Visitor Center.

The Democrats who run Congress are skeptical of sending more troops to Afghanistan. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last month that there is not support for more troops “in the country or the Congress.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president’s briefing to leadership, key chairmen and ranking Republicans will give him a chance “to walk them through where we are in the process and solicit their views.”

“The president has discussed wanting to hear from all of those that are involved in this, and certainly Congress plays a big role in this,” Gibbs said in his daily press briefing.

Also on Monday, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), Obama’s Republican rival for the presidency in 2008, said he believes Obama will support the troop increase, but said it should happen more quickly.

“More of them are in harm’s way, the longer we delay,” McCain said during an appearance on the Don Imus radio show.

But Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the House leadership team, on Monday said there is no reason to rush a decision.

“We’ve been in Afghanistan for eight years. We can take a little more time,” Van Hollen said. “It’s more important to get it right.”

Thirty-one lawmakers are scheduled to attend the White House  briefing, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Pelosi, Boehner, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and McCain, and Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Cantor.

Gibbs repeated his assertion that Obama is still weeks away from making a strategic decision on how to proceed in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The president is confident with where we are in the process,” he said.

Liberal groups have started mobilizing on Afghanistan, though sometimes with less zeal than they showed when protesting President George W. Bush on Iraq. On Sunday, MoveOn.org urged members to sign a petition telling Obama and Congress that “We need a clear military exit strategy — not tens of thousands more U.S. troops stuck in a quagmire.”

Republicans are also turning up the pressure. The National Republican Congressional Committee on Monday sent out news releases challenging House Armed Services Committee Democrats from conservative districts to say whether they support McChrystal’s request.

Gibbs ruled out leaving Afghanistan after the topic was discussed on several of the Sunday morning talk shows and protesters were heard outside the White House as the president held a Rose Garden event on healthcare earlier Monday.

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“I don’t think we have the option to leave,” Gibbs said. “I think that’s quite clear.”

Gibbs also refused to rebuke McChrystal, the head of U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan who publicly advocated sending more troops to the region, rather than waiting for a decision from Obama.

White House advisers are reportedly split over whether to follow McChrystal’s strategy to secure the country, or pursue a narrower goal of hunting down al Qaeda that involves fewer troops.

Gibbs dismissed the “back-and-forth” over diverging White House views as “the Washington game,” but he also declined to walk back what appeared to be a wrist-slap to McChrystal from Jones.

“Far be it from me to parse the words of a four-star general,” Gibbs said of Jones.

Jones said over the weekend that any advice for the president on a way forward should be handled within the military chain of command. “The president should be presented with options, not just one fait accompli,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

McChrystal made his preference for more troops known during a speech in London last week shortly before he was summoned to meet with Obama in person aboard Air Force One in Copenhagen, Denmark, after the president had unsuccessfully lobbied the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to bring the Games to Chicago in 2016.

Gibbs said McChrystal’s assessment is why Obama sent the general to Afghanistan.

McChrystal’s public push for more troops reportedly runs counter to the views of Vice President Joe Biden, who is said to prefer the smaller contingent of troops focused on fighting al Qaeda.

The debate over the issue intensified over the weekend as eight U.S. soldiers were killed in a raid. Gibbs said the new strategy would not include more isolated outposts like the one that was attacked.

“Very much the opposite,” Gibbs said. “[It’s] a strategy that is much more focused on population centers.”