Ugly Politics for Obama and Afghanistan

The "On The Marc" column is written by Marc Ambinder, CBS News' chief political consultant.

The politics of Afghanistan look pretty ugly from the White House's perspective right now.

It appears as if Gen. Stanley McChrystal is putting the thumbscrews to the president, which makes Mr. Obama look weak. McChrystal got his fourth star from Mr. Obama. He's Mr. Obama's general. Mr. Obama picked him, without reservation, based on one meeting with the guy.

Mr. Obama doesn't react well to ultimatums, but the interagency process he is using to review the new policy doesn't foreclose on the possibility that McChrystal will get exactly what he wants.

For the whispering campaign, the White House blames conservatives close to McChrystal and colonels and flag officers in his inner circle who instinctively distrust Democrats and not McChrystal himself. But the intensity with which the commander's wishes have been conveyed has only strengthened the resolve of Mr. Obama's senior national security aides to hew to the schedule they set out.

During the president's short meeting with the general last Friday, he asked McChrystal a mix of questions about what, precisely, the 68,000 troops on the ground are already doing, as well as about his relationship with Hamid Karzai, about the role of Pakistan, the shifting alliances of the Taliban, the status and health of the Afghani people. He did not reproach McChrystal, according to White House officials.

The easiest way to understand the divide between McChrystal and the White House staff is to look at the way the debate has been framed: for McChrystal, Afghanistan will dodder into chaos unless 40,000 more troops are in place within 10 months. For the White House, defeating the al Qaeda ideology worldwide, with development, peacemaking and diplomacy -- delegitimizing it -- is just as important.

But the White House has hoisted itself up a tree here: it was the president who wrote the equation that McChrystal is now trying to fill in: Al Qaeda's safe haven in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan is their single most dangerous strategic vantage point.

Where McChrystal and the White House agree is that the Taliban tribes -- religious, familiar, historical -- will ally with whomever they believe will serve their own interests the most. Right now, in the absence of a credible government in Kabul, or the presence of a nationwide Afghan military force, the links between the Taliban and al Qaeda are Yale-lock tight.

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Perhaps -- perhaps -- winning over civilians is impossible. Afghanistan is not a country but a collection a tribes, a collection that "large military structures" that reek of U.S. imperial ambitions cannot possibly seek to ally with. (That formulation, incidentally, comes from Sen. Jim Webb.)

By this line of thinking, dedicating U.S. resources to a better and strategic counterterrorism policy -- one that is properly resourced and is combined with aggressive non-military endeavors -- will reduce the threat enough and will discredit the al Qaeda ideology enough. Those who hold this view -- Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser James Jones -- are skeptical that even thousands more troops could effectively build an Afghan army that is capable of acting independently of the U.S.

The problem is, if there's one general who knows about the limitations of using a military counterterrorism strategy to defeat al Qaeda, it's the guy who was in charge of black ops for the past five years -- and that'd be Gen. Stanley McChrystal. And there a strong sense that the mobile counterterrorism concept has already been tried in Afghanistan, and failed.

A hybrid approach is being talked about, one that would reallocate resources to counterterrorism in some parts of the country and to building civil society in places where it seems civil society can be built.

Republicans want to use McChrystal's recommendation as a battering ram to make Democrats look weak, and to try and turn Mr. Obama into the guy who lost his will on Afghanistan. The GOP is spreading rumors that, if Mr. Obama doesn't give McChrystal exactly what he wants, McChrystal is going to resign; or David Petraeus is going to resign and will end up on the 2012 ticket. These preposterous and mischievous assertions really are driving the political conversation.

It is quite possible that, in the end, Mr. Obama will agree to send more troops. This review gives him some political cover. It allows him some time to reframe the strategy, which involves many different levers of American power, diplomacy with Pakistan and India, nation-building outside of Afghanistan, cooperation with Russia, China and Iran, intelligence, etc. It allows him to build a case for Democrats, who will be most disappointed if he agrees with a request that they now define as a GOP strategic imperative.

Coming up on the "CBS Evening News": Afghanistan: The Road Ahead, an in-depth examination of the escalating conflict, airing this week at 6:30 p.m. ET. Special Report: Afghanistan

As usual, his counselors are advising him to hover above the fray and to not allow himself to be pinned to the wall by his staff or his generals: let the White House staff duke it out with CentCom, but let Mr. Obama be seen as the guy who took his time, gave all voices their due, and made a decision in the end. The way Obama makes his decision will influence public opinion as much as the decision Mr. Obama makes. This, I think, is the political level on which the White House is operating.

Conventional wisdom holds that if Mr. Obama chooses to send more troops, Republicans will give him enough votes and Democrats will rip each other to shreds in an angry internal battle. If he chooses not to send more troops, Republicans will demagogue him and Democrats will rip each other to shreds in an angry internal battle.

The White House's political goal here - and they have one - is to give Mr. Obama the latitude to make a decision without having to worry too much about the short-term political considerations. They want to sort of force the public to follow the process - to perceive how careful Mr. Obama is being - to give Mr. Obama a little more room to decide.