WASHINGTON -- Republican congressional leaders urged President Barack Obama on Tuesday to send more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, saying he should act quickly lest any delay endanger troops who already are there and are facing a deteriorating situation.
"Time is not on our side," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as he left the White House after a bipartisan meeting with Obama. "We need to act with deliberate haste."
"He wants ample time to make a good decision. Frankly, I support that," added Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, his party's leader in the House of Representatives.
"But we need to remember that every day that goes by, the troops that we do have there are in greater danger. I don't believe the president needs to make a decision in haste, but we need to get this right."
Obama, who later this week will hold his third and fourth of five scheduled meetings to rethink strategy in the eight-year-old Afghanistan war, didn't tell the top lawmakers from both parties what or when he'll decide. However, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., his party's number two leader in the House, emerged saying that it will be soon. "Weeks, not months," he said.
Obama earlier Tuesday vowed a sustained campaign against the al Qaida terrorist network, but noticeably didn't mention Afghanistan or the Taliban regime there that harbored al Qaida terrorists when they were planning the 2001 terrorist attacks.
"We know that al Qaida and its extremist allies threaten us from different corners of the globe, from Pakistan, but also from East Africa and Southeast Asia, from Europe and the Gulf," Obama said during a speech at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va.
"We will target al Qaida wherever they take root," he added. "We are developing the capacity and the cooperation to deny a safe haven to any who threaten America and its allies."
His failure to mention Afghanistan at a time when he's focused intensely on deciding what to do there could be interpreted as signaling a tilt toward a scaled-down presence there that would focus more on counterterrorism strikes on al Qaida targets, particularly in Pakistan. Vice President Joe Biden reportedly is urging such a strategy revision.
The current strategy aims as well at securing Afghan villages from the Taliban, shoring up institutions there and cultivating public support, which requires more manpower and a long-term U.S. presence. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is requesting around 40,000 more U.S. troops to pursue that strategy, but Obama's not committing himself on that until he finishes his policy review.
Asked about Obama's omission of Afghanistan when citing al Qaida bases, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said "the point wasn't a geography bee to mention each and every country in and around the world, but instead to focus on ensuring that we keep the fight on al Qaida's global network."
Obama's strategy session Wednesday in the White House Situation Room will focus entirely on Pakistan, aides said. Friday's session could cover the question of additional troops, which aides said hadn't yet been discussed in the sessions.
Whichever strategy he chooses, Obama told the lawmakers at the White House that he won't abandon Afghanistan.
"The president reiterated that we need this debate to be honest and dispense with the straw man argument that this is about either doubling down or leaving Afghanistan," said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"Nobody is talking about just leaving. Nobody is talking about just a counterterrorism strategy," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Kerry, however, like other Democrats, said questions about the honesty and legitimacy of the Afghan government in the wake of its tainted recent election and reports of widespread corruption demanded rethinking whether even more U.S. troops could win popular support against the Taliban and secure the country.
"Until those questions are satisfactorily answered, it would be irresponsible to make a choice about committing troops to harm's way," Kerry said. "The troops deserve a strategy that is every bit as good as the sacrifice they're being asked to make."
McCain, who was an early proponent of the 2007 "surge" that sent more U.S. troops to Iraq, said that Obama should pay special heed to the recommendations from McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus for a broader strategy because they did the same thing successfully in Iraq.
"I'm very convinced that General McChrystal's analysis is not only correct but should be employed as quickly as possible," McCain said.
Asked about the threat of drawing down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, McCain said he was more worried that Obama might attempt some sort of compromise.
"Half-measures is what I worry about, not getting completely out of Afghanistan," he said.
He also said there was no doubt that a U.S. loss in Afghanistan would open the way to the Taliban regime and then to al Qaida. "The fact is, we all know that if the Taliban come back, al Qaida will come back. And they will come back in Afghanistan and they will come back in Pakistan."
While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said there was diversity of opinion at the meeting -- White House aides said 18 lawmakers spoke -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suggested that there was a unanimous pledge to support Obama in what appeared to be an attempt to box the Republicans into backing the president.
"Everyone, Democrats and Republicans, said whatever decision you make we'll support it, so we'll see," Reid said.
When Reid was asked whether that meant Democrats would support Obama even if he sought money for 40,000 more troops, he didn't repeat the pledge.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to make the blanket promise.
"I think Republicans will be able to make the decisions for themselves," he said.
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