WASHINGTON -- With the military and Republicans publicly pressuring President Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan soon and his own administration now deeply divided about how to proceed there, the eight-year war against al-Qaida and the Taliban has become an increasingly urgent policy and political dilemma for the president.
He can escalate an unpopular and open-ended war and risk a backlash from his liberal base or refuse his commanders and risk being blamed for a military loss that could tar him and his party as weak on national security.
Obama's decision could be a defining moment of his presidency, and it will reveal much about how he leads. Friends and enemies around the world will be watching -- and judging -- whether he's firmly in charge or whether he instinctively seeks some safe middle ground.
"This is tough for Democrats.
They own this war. They own what happens from here on out. This is a bit of a mess for them all the way around," said Juan Carlos Zarate, a senior adviser at Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former official in the Bush and Clinton administrations.
In interviews with McClatchy last week, military officials and other advocates of escalation expressed their frustration at what they consider "dithering" from the White House. Then, while Obama indicated in television interviews Sunday he isn't ready to consider whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, someone gave the Washington Post a classified Pentagon report arguing more troops are necessary to prevent defeat.
The White House insisted anew Monday the president won't be stampeded into a quick decision on more troops, saying he first wants to make sure there's a sound strategy in place to secure Afghanistan and make certain it can't be used as a haven for al-Qaida terrorists, as it was before 2001.
His hesitation reflects deep divisions within his own administration and deep uncertainty about whether, even with tens of thousands more troops, the United States can succeed in Afghanistan without a less corrupt and legitimately elected Afghan government, greater cooperation from neighboring Pakistan and more time and money than the American public and the Congress may be willing to commit.
Opponents of escalation, led by Vice President Biden, fear Afghanistan is a quagmire that will further undermine the administration's domestic political agenda and hurt the Democrats in next year's congressional elections.
The Pentagon itself is sharply divided over what to do, said several defense officials who weren't authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity, with much, but not all, of the uniformed military lined up behind Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. McChrystal wrote the leaked memo, but top policy advisers such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy oppose his plan.
Opponents of a buildup contend that al-Qaida, which they note is based in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan, could be neutralized by having U.S. special forces standing by and ready to attack Osama bin Laden's followers once actionable intelligence on their locations is acquired.
This group "wants to find an area where you can pay off enough warlords to provide you with security and then launch from there," another defense official said, requesting anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. Meantime, he said, this group would continue building up and training Afghan security forces.
That alternative, however, would require more U.S. troops to train Afghan forces.
McChrystal and other proponents of committing more troops argue that success in Afghanistan is "still achievable" but without more U.S. troops soon, the war "will likely result in failure."
The American people increasingly oppose the war. In one recent poll for CNN, 58 percent said they opposed the war, while 39 percent favored it.