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Obama Meets With Lawmakers On Afghanistan

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Michele, you've been away for a few months. It's great to have you back.

NORRIS: Thank you, Melissa. For those who have been wondering where I've been, I've been off working on a book project. And as wonderful as that was, spending time as a ALL THINGS CONSIDERED listener, it's really nice to be back here in Studio 2A with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Well, it's good to see you again. Thanks for coming back.

NORRIS: Well, as we return to the news, we begin this hour of the program with a big White House meeting. President Obama invited about 30 members of Congress over to brief them on his review of strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What he ends up deciding could define his presidency.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on today's meeting.

MARA LIASSON: As the lawmakers emerge from the White House, it was clear Afghanistan does not produce your typical partisan divide. The president's own Democrats are the most skeptical of committing more troops to Afghanistan. Here is Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said she honored what the president had to say in the meeting, but...

NORRIS: Whether we agreed with it or voted for it remains to be seen, when we see what the president put forth.

LIASSON: The opposition Republicans, however, are where the president will find the most support for a potential increase of troops. Here's House Minority Leader John Boehner.

NORRIS: And if that is the goal, I believe that my colleagues on the House side will be there to support him.

LIASSON: The Afghanistan question is a defining moment for the Obama presidency. Should Mr. Obama send more troops to Afghanistan or not? Neither way offers a guarantee of success for a mission the president says has not changed: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida. This morning at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia, he repeated that goal.

P: We will target al-Qaida wherever they take root. We will not yield in our pursuit. And we are developing the capacity and the cooperation to deny a safe haven to any who threaten America and its allies.

LIASSON: Exactly how and where to target al-Qaida is the question before the president and his national security team. Should they focus on Pakistan or send more troops to Afghanistan? Where the president's own national security adviser, Jim Jones, says there are currently only about 100 al-Qaida members.

Back in March, the president said that if the Afghan government were to fall to the Taliban, the country will be again a base for terrorists who want to kill us. Yesterday on CNN, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates repeated that argument.

NORRIS: If the Taliban took large - took control of significant portions of Afghanistan, that that would be added space for al-Qaida to strengthen itself and more recruitment, more fundraising.

LIASSON: And he added...

NORRIS: The reality is that because of our inability and the inability, frankly, of our allies to put enough troops into Afghanistan, the Taliban do have the momentum right now, it seems.

LIASSON: The U.S. did commit 21,000 new troops to Afghanistan in the spring. The president now has to decide how many more than that, if any, are needed to accomplish the mission. Gates agreed the situation is serious and deteriorating. But there's no answer yet from the administration on what to do about it. Should there be a lighter footprint with more emphasis on surgical counter-terror strikes, or a more troop-heavy counterinsurgency strategy, as General McChrystal has laid out?

McChrystal is giving the president a menu of options for added troop strength ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 troops. But one option that is not on the table, says Secretary Gates, pulling out the troops that are there now.

NORRIS: There should be no uncertainty in terms of our determination to remain in Afghanistan and to continue to build a relationship of partnership and trust with the Pakistanis. That's long-term. That's a strategic objective of the United States for a number of reasons.

LIASSON: Tomorrow, the president will meet again with his national security team in the Situation Room to discuss the strategy. Last week's meeting, the first in the review, focused on the military situation on the ground. Tomorrow's will focus on Pakistan. Future meetings will look at the crucial question of troop levels. According to an administration official, the president told the lawmakers today, his final determination won't make everyone in the room happy. His decision is expected by the end of the month.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.