By Sam Youngman - 10/27/09 12:36 AM EDT
President Obama said he would not “rush” a decision on a new strategy in Afghanistan after one of the deadliest days in the region.
A pair of helicopter crashes added to the mounting pressure on Obama, who is considering a request from his top general in the region for more troops.
On Monday, Obama honored the U.S. troops and Drug Enforcement Administration agents who died in the crashes, which military officials said appeared not to involve hostile fire.
In a speech to nearly 3,000 servicemen at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla., Obama said those who died gave “the last full measure of devotion.”
In the same speech, he pushed back against critics who say he hasn’t acted swiftly enough.
“While I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests, I also promise you this — and this is very important as we consider our next steps in Afghanistan — I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way,” Obama said. “I won’t risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt.”
Monday’s loss of U.S. troops in Afghanistan followed Sunday’s car bombs in Iraq that killed more than 150 people, many of them children.
The president met with some of his national security advisers Monday in the White House Situation Room, the sixth meeting of its kind, to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. But fewer advisers were included, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in the region who reportedly has asked for nearly 40,000 additional troops, did not participate.
The White House did not provide details of what was discussed.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Monday said that McChrystal’s plan for more troops reaches “too far, too fast.”
In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Kerry said that before additional troops are deployed to the country, three conditions must be met: sufficient Afghan troops; reliable local partners; and enough development aid to buttress military progress.
The Massachusetts Democrat said that, despite his concerns, he may eventually support a troop surge.
“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.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One that the president and his advisers are “focused on reviewing and assessing and making a decision.”
Gibbs repeated that he does not know when the president will make or announce his decision, but he did say, “I would still say this is in the coming weeks.
“As soon as he has it, he’ll make it,” Gibbs said. “Whether that’s before the runoff or not, I just don’t know.”
Gibbs was asked if Monday’s deaths would push the president to accelerate his timetable for a decision.
“The president understands, as I think everyone does, the urgency of getting this decision right,” Gibbs said. “We are reminded on an almost daily basis of the sacrifice that thousands have made and continue to make to protect our freedom. So I think the president understands that, and the president is enormously humbled by their sacrifices, as I think all Americans are.”
Republicans have grown increasingly critical of Obama for delaying his decision, accusing him of allowing politics to influence his actions.
Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said events like those in Afghanistan on Monday would only change the course of Obama’s decision if Republican criticism is true, and the president is allowing the U.S. political environment to affect his decision.
“I think that the extent he’s listening to his political advisers, it could complicate his decision,” Phillips said. “And that’s wrong. He should be listening to his commanders on the ground.”
Obama needs to focus on the broader strategy, Phillips said, unless new evidence shows the helicopter crashes were caused by hostile fire.
“The president can’t afford to react to the day-to-day zigzags,” Phillips said.
Early reports indicted the car bombings were intended to influence next year’s elections in Iraq.
Gibbs said he did not think the bombings would affect the planned U.S. withdrawal timeline. Total U.S. troop withdrawal is supposed to be completed by Aug. 31, 2010, and Obama has said repeatedly he intends to stick to that schedule.
“We have to continue to monitor it, but I don’t know of any change in the timetable,” Gibbs said.
Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.