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An expert's view on Afghanistan strategy discussions

  • Story Highlights
  • President Obama met with his national security team on Wednesday
  • Meeting focused on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, other strategies
  • Former national security adviser gives his take on what will go on Wednesday
  • It will be a "vigorous debate," Stephen Hadley told CNN
By Ed Hornick
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A meeting between President Obama and his national security team Wednesday could be a turning point in the war in Afghanistan, says someone who's been in similar meetings.

Hadley says he believes advisers will help Obama feel "comfortable making the decision ... only he can make."

Hadley says he believes advisers will help Obama feel "comfortable making the decision ... only he can make."

Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser in the Bush administration, said the meeting would be a "vigorous debate" in which "views will change ... may be some emerging consensus."

"And one of the purposes of the kind of process that they're going through now is to take people with the range of views, express their views to the president and see in an interactive process," Hadley said.

"Again, the fact that the president is interacting directly with his national security principles and hopefully with his diplomats and military officers in the field, allows for a process in some sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," he said.

But in the end, the decision rests solely with the commander in chief, who Hadley said sets the tone and direction of the negotiations with his advisers.

"What we know and what we're told about this president is that he's very deliberate and that he wants to hear from everyone in the room. ... I think they [Obama's advisers] will speak freely ... and it will put him in a position where he feels comfortable making the decision that, really, only he can make."

But the president faces varying opinions from within his administration, including recent reports that his vice president is urging a counterterrorism strategy that would focus on targeting al Qaeda and Taliban forces

In the past weeks, Obama has grappled with the decision to send additional forces to Afghanistan as the situation on the ground has deteriorated.

From the beginning of his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly has pledged he wouldn't withdraw troops from Afghanistan. He called the country 'ground zero' in the war on terror and said the Bush administration had neglected it. Early this year, Obama made a change in strategy over troop levels and resources, hiring a new general with a new strategy. And now he faces a decision over whether he agrees with that general's assessment

The United States now has about 62,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. NATO and other allied forces come to about 35,000.

Hadley, who worked with the Bush administration during the 2007 troop surge in Iraq and its strategies in Afghanistan, said a process in place by the national security team will help focus the discussions. Video Watch more on the issues facing Afghanistan »

"One of the things about the whole national security system ... is that it's a very flexible instrument," he said. "They will adopt a way of working through issues that is the one that the president is comfortable with, that allows him to get the information and opinions he needs."

But it's the national security adviser, Hadley argued, who really has the president's ear during this type of discussion.

"The national security adviser has a lot of access to the president and a lot of opportunities for informal conversations," he said. "Generally, the president tends to take counsel from the national security adviser privately and a little bit offstage."

Bob Woodward of the Washington Post wrote in an article this summer that on a trip to Afghanistan, James L. Jones -- Obama's national security adviser -- personally told U.S. military commanders there that the administration wants to hold troop levels flat for now.

Jones has also said in recent media reports that the challenges in Afghanistan are more complex than what Bush faced during the Iraq war.

Hadley said the differences boil down to the relative wealth and development of the two countries. Because of Iraq's oil and its more sophisticated society, "there is money there to help in the rebuilding," he said. In contrast, Afghanistan is "very poor" and "does not have a tradition of a strong central government."

Another factor the administration likely will have to consider is neighboring Pakistan, in which the Taliban and al Qaeda forces are known to reside.

Hadley said he is hopeful Obama -- and diplomats in Afghanistan -- will listen to ambassadors from countries such as Pakistan.

"Obviously, what happens in Pakistan has a huge impact on Afghanistan and vice versa," Hadley said. "So [Obama] will want to hear the assessments of our diplomats in neighboring countries, because there is a regional dimension to solving this problem that he needs to take into account, as well."

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Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations, agreed that the presence of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan is a persistent problem.

"We cannot succeed easily without dealing sharply with the issue of the sanctuary," he told Christiane Amanpour, CNN's chief international correspondent.

All About AfghanistanStephen HadleyBarack Obama

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