WASHINGTON -- President Obama is weighing an expected request for more U.S. troops against concerns that an expanded American presence could be perceived by Afghan civilians as an occupation army and not a liberating force battling a determined and bloody Taliban resurgence.
As the president took a newly finished review of military strategy in Afghanistan with him to Camp David on Wednesday as he continues a vacation break, a senior administration official declined to say how Obama is leaning on whether to boost American forces above the troops he ordered deployed earlier this year.
But by acknowledging concern that Afghans -- and Americans and NATO allies -- may see any significant U.S. troop increase as a shift from liberation to occupation, the White House could be opening a policy escape hatch -- a pared down request from the military that Obama would find agreeable.
The troop recommendations are expected to come in the next several weeks, following a wide-ranging review of the war and civilian efforts that arrived Monday from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The senior White House official, speaking anonymously to detail Obama's thinking, said the concern about how Afghans, Americans and NATO allies would view a troop increase was part of five broad measurements the president was applying to the assessment and an expected request for more troops. The other concerns, the official said, are:
--How force size changes might be countered by Al Qaeda propaganda and tactics.
--The effect on the "health" of U.S. forces, already strained from repeated deployments in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
--How more forces effectively would propel Obama's goal of denying Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
By the end of the process, the overall request for additional forces could be relatively small -- perhaps below a standing request for 10,000 additional troops that McChrystal's predecessor left behind. McChrystal will also recommend shifting forces within the country, rearranging the current mix of forces and contracting out some tasks now performed by soldiers, military officials said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already laid some of the groundwork against a major expansion of the U.S. force. Speaking in Texas on Monday about the McChrystal assessment,Gates said: "We have been very explicit that Gen. McChrystal should be forthright in telling us what he needs."
But Gates added, "I think there are larger issues. We will have to look at the availability of forces; we will have to look at costs. There are a lot of different things we will have to look at."
Against a backdrop of diminishing support at home for the eight-year-old war, Gates and other senior Pentagon leaders are treading carefully, concerned not to cut their new hand-picked Afghanistan commander off at the knees.
Early this year, Obama ordered 21,000 additional troops into the country, where the American force level will have reached about 68,000 by year's end.
McChrystal has already reviewed the troops he inherited in Afghanistan and identified overlaps and inefficiencies he is expected to cut, defense officials said. That could help him add combat troops without greatly increasing the overall size of the U.S. force.
The administration is keeping the classified report under wraps despite earlier expectations that at least a summary would be released. A senior military official said the report is between 20 and 25 pages long.
Tentative plans to have McChrystal and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, retired Gen. Karl Eikenberry, come to Washington this month to testify before Congress have also been scrapped.
Whatever Obama decides, he's facing vexing problems on a signature foreign policy and security issue and growing opposition at home.
Polling shows Americans increasingly against deeper involvement in the war if not in outright opposition to its continuation, even among his liberal Democratic base. With troop deaths at a record level last month as the war approaches the end of its eighth year, Americans are impatient and war-weary.
And U.S. resources, badly crimped by the economic downturn and vast federal spending to prop up the U.S. financial system, are desperately needed for other major projects that Obama has promised -- like an overhaul of the U.S. health care system.