Soldiers on lookout in Afghanistan. Early signs indicate that Obama will streamline US efforts in Afghanistan. (Photo: Doug Grindle)
Washington - President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to redirect U.S. troops and resources to Afghanistan from Iraq, but he has done little so far to suggest he will significantly widen the grinding war with insurgents in Afghanistan.
On the contrary, Obama appears likely to streamline the U.S. focus with an eye to the worsening economy and the cautionary example of the Iraq war that sapped political support for President George W. Bush.
"There's not simply a military solution to that problem," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last week, and Obama believes "that only through long-term and sustainable development can we ever hope to turn around what's going on there."
Less than two weeks into the new administration, Obama has had little to say in public about what his top military adviser says is the largest challenge facing the armed forces. He did say Afghanistan and Pakistan are the central front in the struggle against terrorism, a clue to the likely shift toward a targeted counterterrorism strategy.
After Obama's first visit to the Pentagon as president, a senior defense official said the new president surveyed top uniformed officers about the strain of fighting two wars and warned that the economic crisis will limit U.S. responses. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama's meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff was private.
Obama said he wants to add troops to turn back a resurgent Taliban, but he has not gone beyond the approximately 30,000 additional forces already under consideration by the previous administration. Those troops will nearly double the U.S. presence in Afghanistan this year, but they amount to a finger in the dike while Obama recalibrates a chaotic mishmash of military and development objectives.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week warned of grandiose goals in Afghanistan, prescribing a single-minded strategy to prevent Afghanistan from being a terrorism launchpad.
"Afghanistan is the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose," Gates said, referring to a haven of purity in Norse mythology. "Nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience or money, to be honest."
Obama has ordered a fast internal review of his military, diplomatic and other options in Afghanistan before he makes decisions that define how aggressively he will answer the growing threat of failure in Afghanistan.
Along with that review, coordinated by the National Security Council, Obama will have results of a just-completed classified Joint Chiefs of Staff assessment of a largely stalemated fight against the Taliban and counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaida and affiliated groups along the Pakistan border.
That report, which has not yet gone to the White House, talks broadly about tamping down expectations in the Afghan war.
Instead, it suggests that key goals should be to make modest gains to stabilize the governance and to eliminate terrorist safe havens, senior defense officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the report is secret.
It also calls for military commanders to better articulate what their objectives in Afghanistan are because only then can leaders determine what types of troops should be deployed and how many.
The Joint Chiefs review also stresses that the strategy must be driven by what the Afghans want and that the U.S. cannot impose its own goals on the Afghan government.
Also coming: Army Gen. David Petraeus' wider survey of both the Afghan and Iraq wars and other issues in the Middle East. Petraeus, military architect of the "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq, is not likely to recommend a similar increase in Afghanistan. Like Gates, Petraeus has argued that the United States cannot shoot itself into victory in Afghanistan.
And waiting for Obama when he arrived was an unreleased assessment by the Bush White House that sketched grim options in a war that the Bush administration once thought was all but won.
"It is clear that 2009 will be a crisis year in Afghanistan," said Anthony Cordesman, a close student of military developments in Afghanistan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Fundamental changes are needed in U.S. strategy, force levels and aid effort to reverse years of inadequate and incompetent efforts."
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.