A war plan that asks President Barack Obama to commit tens of thousands of additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan is too ambitious, a top Senate Democrat said Monday.
Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the White House's point man during last week's tense talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, praised commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal but said his plan for adding troops in Afghanistan "goes too far, too fast."
Kerry's stance would aim for a modest increase in American forces, treading middle ground between Republicans who have said Obama would put soldiers and the country at risk by rejecting McChrystal's larger request and anti-war Democrats who question whether the United States has already taken on too much in Afghanistan.
"Under the right circumstances, if we can be confident that military efforts can be sustained and built upon, then I would support the president should he decide to send some additional troops to regain the initiative," Kerry said.
Obama is nearing a decision on whether to commit large numbers of additional troops to the war next year. McChrystal favors an increase of roughly 40,000, officials have told The Associated Press, which would allow the U.S. military to expand its reach in areas of the country's south and east now under Taliban sway.
Fresh from several days of talks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Kerry warned that the United States also cannot risk a drastic shift in strategy that would focus narrowly on hunting terrorists.
"We all see the appeal of a limited counterterrorism mission, and no doubt it is part of the endgame, but I don't think we're there yet," Kerry said during remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations. "A narrow mission that cedes half the country to the Taliban could lead to civil war" in Afghanistan and threaten the fragile civilian government in Pakistan, he said.
No rushed decision
Obama mourned 14 Americans killed Monday in helicopter crashes in Afghanistan, and told a military audience he will not be hurried as he evaluates whether to alter U.S. strategy in the war.
"I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way. I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary," Obama said during a visit to Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida.
Obama convened another in a series of White House war council sessions with Cabinet officials and other top advisers earlier Monday amid Republican criticism that he is taking too long to choose his next move.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Monday that a decision is still expected in the coming weeks.
As Obama weighs his options on the military side, the State Department said Monday it was on track to meet the goal of tripling the size of the civilian component in Afghanistan by year's end or very early 2010.
That will bring the number of agronomists, lawyers, diplomats and development experts in the country from 320 in January to 974, Deputy Secretary of State for Management Jack Lew told reporters.
Lew said he did not expect Obama's decision on troops to have a significant effect on the civilians except in cases where additional troops might secure new areas of the country for them to work safely.
Three civilian Drug Enforcement Administration agents died Monday during the crash of a U.S. military helicopter that also killed seven U.S. service members, U.S. officials said. The craft went down in the west of Afghanistan.
The casualties mark the first DEA deaths in Afghanistan since the drug agency began operations there in 2005.
"DEA is an extremely tight family, and the death of these three brave agents is a devastating loss for us," DEA administrator Michele Leonhart said in a statement. "No expressions of grief can adequately convey the depth of the collective sorrow that we feel for their loved ones."
Officials say the helicopter had left the scene of a firefight with insurgents.
In a separate incident, two U.S. Marine helicopters collided in flight before sunrise over the southern province of Helmand, killing four American troops, Marine spokesman Maj. Bill Pelletier said.