WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's internal debate over Afghan policy has escalated into a battle of media leaks that's straining relations between officials who're seeking a major troop increase and those who want a more limited approach and a greater focus on domestic priorities.
The feud also has poisoned ties between the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan and the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, and left the administration struggling for leverage to press Afghan President Hamid Karzai to appoint untainted officials to his new government, attack corruption and share power with the parliament and provincial officials.
The battle in the media prompted normally mild-mannered Defense Secretary Robert Gates to lash out at leakers Thursday, telling reporters on a flight to Oshkosh, Wis., that the disclosures do "not serve the country or . . . the military," and "everyone should just shut up."
It may be too late for that.
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A U.S. defense official said the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, feels he was "stabbed in the back" by Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Three months ago, Eikenberry supported McChrystal's request for more troops, but last week he sent a classified cable opposing it until Karzai shows that he can be trusted.
The official, like others who were interviewed for this article, requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
However, according to a half-dozen U.S. military and administration officials, published reports that Obama was settling on a major troop increase, which began with a McClatchy story last Saturday, have deprived Eikenberry and other officials of the ability to tell Karzai that no more American troops will be forthcoming if he doesn't agree to implement reforms.
Eikenberry wrote the cable last Friday after a meeting in which he pressed Karzai to send his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the political power in southern Kandahar province who allegedly has links to the drug trade, anywhere outside the country, and to embrace a program of overhauls, known as the "Afghanistan Compact," that was drafted by U.S. and Afghan officials, three U.S. officials said.
Karzai rejected the demands, the officials said.
The Afghan leader is also under U.S. pressure to select senior officials for his new government from a U.S. list of 40 individuals whom the Obama administration considers competent and clean, said a diplomat in Kabul who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"There is tremendous pressure on Karzai that is piling up," the diplomat said. "They (U.S. officials) basically said there should be no place for warlords or cronies."
Among those thought to be on the list is Sarwar Ahmedzai, one of the candidates who challenged Karzai in the fraud-marred August presidential election.
Ahmedzai told McClatchy that Karzai's advisers met with him on Thursday and offered him a cabinet post, but that he turned down the offer.
"I don't think this man is going to last five years," said Ahmedzai, who voiced concerns that Karzai would be pushed out by the U.S. if he failed to address international concerns over endemic corruption.
"It's not easy to eradicate corruption in five or six years," he said. "Corruption has taken over every single institution, including the private entities."
The increasingly acrimonious policy dispute may force President Barack Obama to delay unveiling his new Afghan policy until after Thanksgiving as the White House, the Pentagon and U.S. commanders in Afghanistan strive to resolve their differences.
Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst now with the Middle East Institute, said the leaks about Eikenberry's cable have left Obama with no choice but to delay the unveiling of his new Afghan policy.
"He can't dismiss it (the cable)," Weinbaum said. "It complicates things enormously. It really sets things back."
In the end, however, some U.S. officials think that Obama will still embrace a plan that calls for sending just over 30,000 additional U.S. troops because no more than that are available now, and because sending fewer troops would telegraph a lack of resolve to Taliban-led insurgents, their funders across the Muslim world, ordinary Afghans, Pakistan and U.S. allies.
Still, U.S. commanders and senior defense officials said the prospect of a delay could mean putting off preparations for housing and supplying the additional forces, most of whom likely would be sent to Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan.
Moreover, these commanders and officials worry that the public brawl and media leaks that Obama is seeking "off ramps" — options to curtail the U.S.-led military mission if Karzai doesn't comply with demands for changes — will encourage insurgents to intensify attacks on U.S. and allied soldiers in a bid to weaken flagging public support for the war in the U.S. and Europe.
Finally, the officials said, extending the deliberations would stoke frustrations among European allies and also open Obama to more charges from Republicans that he's jeopardizing the lives of U.S. forces as the Taliban continue to gain strength.
The policy battle has been simmering since administration officials led by Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel began leaking to journalists this summer their opposition to McChrystal's call for a major troop increase to support intensified efforts to expand Afghan security forces and civilian aid programs.
McChrystal and his allies fired back by criticizing the more limited counterterrorism approach favored by Biden.
Advocates of this approach argue that the administration should be concentrating its time and political capital in tackling domestic issues such as health care and unemployment. They worry that Afghanistan is a quagmire, and think that the U.S. should limit the size of its force there and instead use Special Forces and missile-firing drone aircraft to kill al Qaida leaders.
The policy feud erupted anew in public after McClatchy on Saturday reported that Obama was leaning toward sending more than 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan. The New York Times, CBS News, Fox News and the Reuters and Associated Press wire services, among others, subsequently produced their own versions of the story.
These leaks angered some White House aides and other officials, who suspected that senior military officials were trying to force Obama to agree to McChrystal's troop increase.
In what the officials said was an effort to derail McChrystal's plan and regain some leverage over Karzai, administration officials then leaked that Obama was still considering four force-level options.
Next, they leaked that the president had rejected all four options, then that he'd asked for refinements of the options and finally, in an orchestrated disclosure on Wednesday, that Eikenberry, a former Army general who served in Afghanistan, had opposed a troop increase in his classified cable.
Obama, who departed Thursday for a weeklong tour of Asian countries, won't announce his decision until he returns from the trip, which ends on Nov. 19, and holds another strategy session with his top aides, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling with the president.
Gibbs said that U.S. and Afghan officials are discussing setting benchmarks to measure progress against the insurgency after the new strategy is announced.
"Some benchmarks have been discussed," Gibbs said. "But . . . the president believes that we have been there for eight years. And we're not going to be there forever. . . . It's important to fully examine not just how we're going to get folks in but how we're going to get folks out."
(Landay and Walcott reported from Washington, and Nissenbaum reported from Kabul. Nancy A. Youssef in Oshkosh, Wis., and Steven Thomma in Washington contributed to this article.)
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