WASHINGTON — The White House on Thursday forcefully rejected criticism from former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans that President Barack Obama's Afghanistan decision is taking too long.
"What Vice President Cheney calls dithering, President Obama calls his solemn responsibility to the men and women in uniform and to the American public," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "I think we've all seen what happens when somebody doesn't take that responsibility seriously."
Obama is nearing a decision on whether to significantly expand the U.S. war posture in Afghanistan by honoring a military request for thousands of additional forces. The decision had been expected as early as mid-August, when Obama's new war commander prepared a harsh assessment of deteriorating conditions in the 8-year-old conflict, and now is expected in what Gibbs calls "the coming weeks."
Weighing different options
Obama is also weighing with his national security team whether to focus more narrowly on al-Qaida terrorists believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
Top commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal's still-secret troop request outlines three options — from as many as 80,000 more troops to as few as 10,000 — but favors a compromise of 40,000 more forces, officials have told The Associated Press. There now are 67,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and 1,000 more are headed there by the end of December.
The previous top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, submitted a request for more troops that went unfulfilled by former President George W. Bush. Obama partly granted that request in March when he ordered an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to go to Afghanistan this year.
Cheney said in a speech Wednesday night that Obama needs to "do what it takes to win" and that "signals of indecision out of Washington hurt our allies and embolden our adversaries."
Video: Pelosi on Obama’s approach to Afghanistan "Make no mistake. Signals of indecision out of Washington hurt our allies and embolden our adversaries," Cheney said while accepting an award from a conservative national security group, the Center for Security Policy.
Taking a similar tack on Thursday, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized the administration during a speech in Fort Worth, Texas, suggesting Obama has projected confusion onto the Afghanistan conflict in his public statements.
Gibbs said such comments were curious "given the fact that an increase in troops sat on desks in this White House, including the vice president's, for more than eight months, a resource request filled by President Obama in March."
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Other Democrats chimed in to defend the president, despite opposition among congressional Democrats to a major expansion of the U.S. war effort.
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"Republicans have developed a troubling pattern of blaming President Obama for trying to fix all the problems that they created," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., also defended Obama, when asked about Cheney's criticism. "I think President Obama is entitled to take sufficient time to decide what our long-term role ought to be in Afghanistan," he said on MSNBC. "I want him to take the time to get it right."
Cheney had also taken issue with statements out of the White House that the Obama administration had to start from scratch to develop a strategy for a conflict begun in 2001, the first year of the Bush presidency.
The Bush administration presented to Obama's transition team the review of the Afghanistan war that it undertook just before leaving office and was asked to keep it under wraps, Cheney said. A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, later disputed that characterization and said the report was not kept under wraps.
Meanwhile, Obama worked Thursday on a strategy to prevent fraud from occurring in Afghanistan in its runoff presidential election set for Nov. 7.
In an hourlong videoconference from the White House Situation Room, Obama and other top advisers heard a briefing and recommendations from the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. Gibbs would not specify what steps the U.S. is taking with Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission to avoid the problems that marred the original election on Aug. 20.
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Obama is not necessarily going to put off his decision on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan until after the run-off election, as some — including Democratic Sen. John Kerry — have strongly suggested he do.
"It could be before the runoff. It might be after the runoff," Gibbs said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday he will prod NATO allies this week for more economic and security aid to Afghanistan while trying to sidestep the debate over more troops.
NATO nations have supplied 36,000 troops, and NATO officials have signaled they won't ask their nations to send more until Obama makes a move.
Gates said there are enough other topics to discuss with NATO allies during a defense chiefs' gathering in Bratislava, Slovakia, this week.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the allies must do more to enable Afghan forces to eventually assume responsibility for security in their country.
NATO currently has 59 training teams working with the Afghan army. Alliance officials say they need the allies to come up with nine more to fulfill present plans that call for an expansion of the Afghan forces from the present 94,000 to 134,000. But if a future expansion plan boosting the Afghan army to 400,000 troops is approved, NATO will need a total of 103 training teams on the ground.
Cheney said the Obama administration seems to be pulling back and blaming others for its own failure to implement the strategy it had embraced earlier in the year.
"The White House must stop dithering while America's armed forces are in danger," the former vice president said. "It's time for President Obama to do what it takes to win a war he has repeatedly and rightly called a war of necessity."
Cheney reserved some of his strongest words for the Obama administration's approach to what he calls "enhanced interrogation," saying that intelligence officers are being unfairly criticized for doing their jobs.
"I will tell you straight that I am not encouraged when intelligence officers who acted in the service of this country find themselves hounded with a zeal that should be reserved for America’s enemies," he said.
"And it certainly is not a good sign when the Justice Department is set on a political mission to discredit, disbar, or otherwise persecute the very people who helped protect our nation in the years after 9/11," Cheney continued. "We cannot protect this country by putting politics over security, and turning the guns on our own guys."
Cheney criticized Obama's decision to drop plans begun in the Bush administration for missile defense interceptors in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic, calling the move "a strategic blunder and a breach of good faith." The administration said it will instead pursue a higher-tech system that is also more cost-effective.
"Our Polish and Czech friends are entitled to wonder how strategic plans and promises years in the making could be dissolved just like that with apparently little if any consultation," he said. "President Obama's cancellation of America's agreements with the Polish and Czech governments is a serious blow to the hopes and aspirations of millions of Europeans."
Cheney said those who try to placate Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and accede to his wishes will get nothing in return but trouble.
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