White House may be exploring a larger role for Senator Kerry in Afghanistan

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will have "an enormously important role" in Afghanistan and the administration’s policy there, according to a White House official.

Kerry, who is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday morning, was instrumental in convincing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a runoff election. An independent election audit found Karzai did not receive more than 50 percent of the vote in the presidential election.

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White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that after Kerry spent "time and energy" in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the president is "anxious to get his read on the situation in both countries ... as well as what he heard from our commanders over there."

Gibbs said that the White House did not arrange for Kerry to travel to the region but that he "played an enormously effective role in the process of the diplomacy needed" to convince Karzai to agree to a runoff.

Gibbs said Kerry's position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee means he will continue to be a voice on the issue. After Obama was elected, Kerry was said to be on the shortlist for secretary of State, but that position went to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Despite Kerry's efforts and Karzai's agreement, the president appears no closer to making a decision on a strategy for Afghanistan.

Gibbs said "it's certainly possible" that Obama will make a decision before the runoff election, but he does not know if that's the case.

"The president's going to make a decision when he makes a decision," Gibbs said. He added: "I know when the election is and I don't know when the decision is, so it's certainly possible."

When asked if Obama would wait until after the election before making that decision, Gibbs said: "The president and the entire team see legitimacy of a partner in Afghanistan as crucial."

Republicans have criticized the president for delaying a decision. The GOP has warned Obama he risks losing their votes for any troop surge in Afghanistan if Obama requests fewer than the 40,000 additional troops sought by Gen. Stanley McChyrstal.

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The threat is seen as significant because many Democrats are opposed to sending additional troops, meaning Obama may need Republican votes to pass a war supplemental bill.

The GOP circulated remarks made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday that seemed to imply that the Pentagon chief did not think a decision could wait until after the election.

Gibbs sought to clarify those remarks with reporters in his West Wing office Wednesday morning, claiming that Gates was saying issues like corruption in the Afghan government will not go away with an election.

"I think his remarks were greatly overinterpreted yesterday," Gibbs said.

Gibbs said the president is not influenced by new polling that shows Americans are increasingly pessimistic about a war fading in popularity.

He added that Obama is "quite comfortable with the process that has been set up to make that decision."