WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's drawn-out decision-making on Afghanistan is sending messages. To the Afghan government: Clean up your act. To the Pentagon: I'm no rubber stamp. To the American public: More troops can't be the sole answer.
Obama has been accused by some Republicans of "dithering" about whether to send more troops and deepen U.S. involvement in an increasingly unpopular war.
The slow process also has left him open to critics who recall his pronouncement in March, after developing what he called a "stronger, smarter and comprehensive" Afghan war strategy, that the situation there was "increasingly perilous." He ordered more troops to battle then, with little discernible result so far.
This time, he's making it clear he won't be rushed. Or pushed. And the way the messages he's sending play out could help determine whether the war effort is sustainable in the long run.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Thursday that the president was nearing a final decision, and he referred to one of the central questions Obama and his advisers have wrestled with for weeks.
"How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this isn't an open-ended commitment?"
At a White House war council meeting Wednesday, Obama rejected the four Afghan war options put before him and asked for revisions that combine the best elements of the proposals, Gates said. The changes could alter the dynamic of both how many additional troops are sent to Afghanistan and their time in the war zone.
Obama is not expected to decide the Afghan matter until after he returns from Asia late next week.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling with Obama on the first leg of his Asia trip Thursday that the president wanted more study of the options to ensure there's a real exit strategy, including benchmarks for success.
"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," Gibbs said.
Obama himself injected another variable on his way to Asia on Thursday. He told troops at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska that he won't send troops into harm's way without the support they need to succeed -- including "public support back home." Polling shows most Americans oppose a troop increase.
Meanwhile, Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, left late Wednesday for consultations with officials in Germany, France and Russia. State Department spokesman Ian C. Kelly said Holbrooke would then attend President Hamid Karzai's inauguration in Kabul.
Obama is considering options that include adding 30,000 or more U.S. forces to take on the Taliban and associated insurgent groups in key areas of Afghanistan -- and to buy time for the Afghan government's inadequate and ill-equipped fighting forces to prepare to take over defense of their country. The other three options are ranges of troop increases, from a relatively small addition to the roughly 40,000 preferred by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, according to military and other officials.
In contrast to the McChrystal approach, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in Kabul has argued against sending large numbers of additional troops. Eikenberry, himself a former U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, harbors strong doubts about the viability of the government there.
James Dobbins, who served as special envoy to Afghanistan during the Bush administration, said in a telephone interview Thursday that the Obama review "has gone on long enough and it is starting to create fissures" among his advisers, as evidenced by the apparent split between Eikenberry and McChrystal.
Obama's own words offer insight into how he's pursuing his decision.
"I've been asking not only General McChrystal, but all of our commanders who are familiar with the situation, as well as our civilian folks on the ground, a lot of questions," Obama said when describing his war review. "I want to make sure that we have tested all the assumptions we're making before we send young men and women into harm's way."
Obama is out to show a methodical approach to wartime decision-making that incorporates, but is not wedded to, the advice of the military.
The White House has also sought to distance itself from the style of President George W. Bush, whom Obama officials had long accused of being unwilling to listen to dissent.
Although Obama's review has been portrayed as mainly a debate about U.S. troop levels, the White House's focus appears to be shifting toward the political side of the equation: Can the Afghan government become a credible partner or is it a source of weakness to be continually exploited by the Taliban insurgents?
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking to reporters in the Philippines, zeroed in on that Thursday.
"We're looking to President Karzai, as he forms a new government, to take action that will demonstrate -- not to the international community, but first and foremost to his own people -- that his second term will respond to the needs that are so manifest," Clinton said. "And I think that the corruption issue really goes to the heart of whether the people of Afghanistan feel that the government is on their side, is working for them."
Central to any counterinsurgency fight is the struggle over the legitimacy of the government. One explanation for the resurgence of the Taliban over the past three years concerns the failings of the Afghan government, which the Taliban have managed to exploit by offering what many Afghans see as a viable alternative. That is why Obama has taken pains to push for greater nonmilitary support for the mission -- additional State Department personnel and more focus on developing Afghan agriculture and trade.
It's also notable that while this deliberation has evolved, a president just 10 months on the job has gotten a much more direct look at the human cost of war, which has undoubtedly affected his thinking.
At Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, he greeted the remains of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
At Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, he saw troops grievously injured in war.
At Fort Hood in Texas, he consoled the families of soldiers shot dead, allegedly by one of their own.
Even on Thursday, during his brief stop at Elmendorf, Obama was to meet privately with the family of a soldier who was killed in Afghanistan.
Before his Fort Hood trip this week, Obama said the visit "absolutely has an impact because it reminds me of the costs involved. It reminds me that these aren't abstractions."
As for the increasingly anxious American people, Obama said in late September: "I understand the public's weariness of this war, given that it comes on top of weariness about the war in Iraq."
His response: "I would expect that the public would ask some very tough questions. That's exactly what I'm doing, is asking some very tough questions."
Associated Press writers Barry Schweid in Washington, Anne Gearan in Oshkosh, Wis., Mark Smith at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, and Matthew Lee in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.