Image: Robert Gates
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
Defense Secretary Robert Gates says military and civilian advisers should give the president candid — but private — advice on the war in Afghanistan.
updated 10/5/2009 8:41:01 PM ET 2009-10-06T00:41:01

President Barack Obama will not walk away from the flagging war in Afghanistan, the White House declared Monday amid intense administration debate over choices that could help define his presidency in his first year as commander in chief.

The fierce Taliban attack that killed eight American soldiers over the weekend added to the pressure. The assault overwhelmed a remote U.S. outpost where American forces have been stretched thin in battling insurgents, underscoring an appeal from Obama's top Afghanistan commander for as many as 40,000 more troops — and at the same time reminding the nation of the costs of war.

Obama's defense secretary, Robert Gates, appealed for calm — and for time for the president to come to a decision.

Obama may take weeks to decide whether to add more troops, but the idea of pulling out isn't on the table as a way to deal with a war nearing its ninth year, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

"I don't think we have the option to leave. That's quite clear," Gibbs said.

The question of whether to further escalate the conflict after adding 21,000 U.S. troops earlier this year is a major decision facing Obama and senior administration policy advisers this week.

Obama also invited a bipartisan group of congressional leaders to the White House on Tuesday to confer about the war. And Obama will meet twice this week with his top national security advisers.

Divided on Afghanistan, Congress takes up a massive defense spending bill this week even before the president settles on a direction for the war.

Taking time to 'get this right'
Defense Secretary Gates said Monday that Obama needs elbow room to make strategy decisions about the war and appealed for calm as the internal Obama White House debate goes increasingly public.

"It is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this right," Gates said at an Army conference. "In this process, it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations — civilians and military alike — provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately."

Gates has not said whether he supports the recommendation of the top commander in Afghanistan to expand the number of U.S. forces by as much as nearly 60 percent. He is holding that request in his desk drawer while Obama sorts through competing recommendations and theories from some of his most trusted advisers.

"I believe that the decisions that the president will make for the next stage of the Afghanistan campaign will be among the most important of his presidency," Gates said.

In trying to blunt the impression that the White House and military are at odds, Gates did not name names. But his remarks came days after top Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal bluntly warned in London that Afghan insurgents are gathering strength. Any plan that falls short of stabilizing Afghanistan "is probably a shortsighted strategy," the general said.

On Sunday, Obama's national security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones, offered a mild rebuke of McChrystal for his London speech.

It is "better for military advice to come up through the chain of command," said Jones.

Hybrid strategy?
At issue is whether U.S. forces should continue to focus on fighting the Taliban and securing the Afghan population, or shift to more narrowly targeting al-Qaida terrorists believed to be hiding in Pakistan with unmanned spy drones and covert operations.

Video: Taliban blamed Gates and some other advisers appear to favor a middle path. A hybrid strategy could preserve the essential outline of an Afghan counterinsurgency campaign that McChrystal rebuilt this summer from the disarray of nearly eight years of undermanned combat, while expanding the hunt for al-Qaida next door.

"Speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability," Gates told the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army.

The top three U.S. military officials overseeing the war in Afghanistan favor continuing the current fight against the Taliban, and have concluded they need tens of thousands more U.S. troops beyond the 68,000 already there.

Officials across the Obama administration have acknowledged that the Taliban is far stronger now than in recent years, as underscored by the U.S. deaths in Nuristan province.

The fighting Saturday marked the biggest loss of U.S. life in a single Afghan battle in more than a year. It also raised questions about why U.S. troops remained in the remote outposts after McChrystal said he planned to close down isolated strongholds and focus on more heavily populated areas as part of his new strategy to focus on protecting Afghan civilians.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: White House weighs Afghan strategy

  1. Closed captioning of: White House weighs Afghan strategy

    >>> this morning. we're going to talk about the next stage of the u.s. military campaign in afghanistan and whether additional u.s. troops are needed. today, president obama consults congressional leaders, including senator john mccain , and we'll talk with him exclusively in just a moment. but first, nbc's chief white house correspondent, chuck "today," has the latest on this. hey, chuck, good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, ann. at the center of the debate about the war in afghanistan is how much is the war against al qaeda confined to that country and how much of that war is a global battle? today, a blunt reminder of the cost of the war in afghanistan . this morning, the eight u.s. servicemen killed this weekend in one of the deadliest battles of the war make their final trip home to dover air force base in delaware. this afternoon, the president sits down with key congressional leaders from both parties to talk about the current strategy review the administration is undertaking, but already, the white house is making it clear, withdrawing troops is not an option.

    >> i don't think we have the option to leave.

    >> reporter: defense secretary robert gates says finding the right strategy in afghanistan will be one of the most important decisions the president will have to make.

    >> the president is being asked to make a very significant decision, and the notion of being willing to pause, reassess basic assumptions, reassess the analysis seems entirely appropriate.

    >> reporter: monday, gates took a backhanded swipe at general stanley mcchrystal, the top u.s. commander in afghanistan , for going public with his request that the president send him an additional 30,000 to 40,000 troops.

    >> it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately.

    >> reporter: in addition to attacks on al qaeda leaders in afghanistan and pakistan, the u.s. has also targeted operatives in indonesia, yemen, somalia and mali in west africa . general david petraeus told brian williams last week the u.s. military is having success against al qaeda .

    >> there has actually been significant progress against top 20 -level leaders.

    >> reporter: one senior adviser tells nbc news al qaeda is now focused on planning smaller-scale attacks on u.s. soil, like the one thwarted in new york city last month. in part, it's because the u.s.-led campaign has dramatically reduced al qaeda 's capacity to plan something on the scale of 9/11.

    >> it's impeded their ability to train and to plan new operations. it's thrown the organization into some disarray.

    >> reporter: now, later today , the president is going to put a spotlight on this global effort by visiting the national counterterrorism center in virginia. one more policy note, meredith. the president is being advised not to conflate al qaeda and the taliban. al qaeda is a global network that they say needs to be destroy. the taliban is an indigenous, domestic threat to afghanistan and pakistan that needs to be defeated. meredith?

    >> chuck todd , thank you very much. republican senator john mccain

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