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Borger: Obama's is vote that matters on Afghanistan

  • Story Highlights
  • President has a big decision to make Wednesday, Gloria Borger writes
  • Conflict has problems, and Obama is getting varied advice, she says
  • But "everybody agrees on the goal," Borger quotes source as saying
  • "Do we have the right strategy in place?" another source asks
By Gloria Borger
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "Campbell Brown," "AC360°" and "State of the Union With John King," as well as during special event coverage.

Gloria Borger says President Obama faces a political problem of his own making on Afghanistan.

Gloria Borger says President Obama faces a political problem of his own making on Afghanistan.

(CNN) -- Sometimes, even in Washington, there's no way around a central truth: that in governing, there are moments when real, tough decisions must be made. No waffling. None of the usual "on the one hand, on the other hand." No hiding behind the votes cast by others.

There is one vote, and it belongs to the president.

It was that way with George W. Bush in December 2006, when, after conferring for three months with his generals and his Cabinet -- not to mention the advice offered by the pooh-bahs in the Iraq Study Group -- he decided on a surge strategy in Iraq. It was not a plan highly touted by many of his advisers, but by January, Bush told the nation "America will change our strategy ... [and] this will require increasing American force levels."

As it turns out, the surge worked.

On Wednesday, President Obama is having his decision moment -- meeting with his entire team of heavyweights, both civilian and military -- to discuss the future in Afghanistan. Like Bush in Iraq, he's got problems: The counterinsurgency strategy isn't working. The war is becoming less popular. And, like Bush, he's getting lots of conflicting advice.

The vice president, whom he sent to Afghanistan for some on-the-ground reporting even before taking office, is pushing for a complete strategic shift: from nation-building in Afghanistan to focusing more on special forces in the region to fight al Qaeda. And his new military chief on the scene, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is advocating something completely different: a force increase of up to 40,000 troops. Another surge.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Afghanistan envoy, Richard Holbrooke, are said to be more hawkish than Biden. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates is keeping his opinions to himself, supporting his general but also telling John King on "State of the Union" that "the administration isn't ready to commit more troops yet." At Wednesday's session, all ears will be tuned to Gates.

But here's a difference between Team Obama and the Bush heavyweights: There's no ideological struggle in place. As one source familiar with the discussions told me, "everybody agrees on the goal. There are no power struggles here. This is not [former Secretary of State Colin] Powell and [former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld going at each other."

Even before Wednesday's session, it's clear the White House has already decided one thing: It's going to stick to its mission. As the president said in his March speech and repeated Tuesday, the mission is to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and prevent their return to either country."

The real question now, according to one source involved in the deliberations, is, "if the mission remains the same, do we have the right strategy in place?" And that's where the debate comes in. If, for instance, al Qaeda is now mostly in Pakistan, do we need a broader regional strategy? And how can we align ourselves -- and our money -- with Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, whose election was questionable and who has been unable to control corruption? What's more, Afghanistan is very different from Iraq, with its less educated, smaller population.

"It's a little like apples and oranges," this source said. "So what worked in one place [like a surge] might not work in another."

The understanding among all participants in this discussion, says this source, is that "we can not let mission creep happen. We have to take a good look at what our priorities and our resources are, and we all know it."

The discussions, he adds, have been "intense, open conversations. It's a thoughtful process that reflects how seriously everyone takes this." And, he adds, "the president grills every advocate about his position."

Outside the room, there's a political problem for Obama, and it's one of his own making. He's the one who told us that he was devoted to the defeat of al Qaeda when he added 21,000 troops, later telling us that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity." So it would be confusing to the public if the president were to say he still wants to defeat al Qaeda but doesn't think more troops will do it.

He could decide, of course, to split the difference: add some troops while pumping up special operations forces. But the danger there, experts say, is that would just reinforce the status quo.

In the end, if the president decides to take a large strategic turn, he's going to have to make the case. If he doesn't, it will be assumed that his decision has more to do with bowing to public opinion that is increasingly against the war than it is to circumstances on the ground.

And no president can afford that.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

All About AfghanistanBarack ObamaGeorge W. Bush

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