WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States must make tough decisions soon about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Barack Obama said on Wednesday after receiving his first briefing from the heads of the U.S. armed forces.
Obama, who is weighing accelerating the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and boosting U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was speaking after a nearly two-hour meeting with Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.
“We are going to have some difficult decisions that we are going to have to make, surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan most immediately,” the president said.
Obama will make a statement “relatively shortly” on the speed of troop withdrawals from Iraq and on overhauling the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told a news conference earlier.
The Pentagon meeting included little discussion of troop levels or movements of U.S. forces in either Afghanistan or Iraq, said a U.S. defence official, who asked not to be named.
“It was a very elevated conversation about the situation worldwide, and the threats that we face and the risks that exist around the globe,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters. “The chiefs got a chance to offer their perspective on all this, the president was completely engaged and asked a lot of good questions of them.”
Obama’s visit to the Pentagon was low-key, compared to his trip to the State Department last week, possibly signalling his intention to stress diplomacy over military power in world affairs.
He appeared to take a swipe at his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, saying that for too long the United States had relied too heavily on its military to achieve its strategic objectives and too little on diplomacy.
“We have for a long time put enormous pressure on our military to carry out a whole set of missions, sometimes not with the sort of strategic support and the use of all aspects of American power to make sure that they are not carrying the full load,” he said.
Obama has said he wants a responsible and phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, where violence has dipped markedly in the past year. On the presidential campaign trail, he said a complete withdrawal could be achieved within 16 months.
Obama has also ordered a comprehensive review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, and a White House official said on Wednesday it would have a “significant non-military component,” a likely reference to development aid.
The situation has deteriorated sharply in Afghanistan in recent months amid rising violence and a resurgent Taliban insurgency that has largely cost Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government control of the provinces.
Gates on Tuesday described Afghanistan as America’s greatest military challenge.
The Obama administration is considering almost doubling the U.S. force in Afghanistan from 36,000 to more than 60,000 within 18 months. Vice President Joe Biden warned Americans over the weekend to brace for a rise in U.S. troop casualties.
The Pentagon’s ability to boost its forces in Afghanistan depends partly on how quickly it can withdraw them from Iraq, where 140,000 troops are deployed.
It will be closely monitoring the performance of Iraqi forces during provincial elections this weekend. If they perform well that could allow U.S. forces to speed up their withdrawal.
Obama’s visit to the Pentagon was part of a whirlwind start to his presidency that has seen him plunge into Middle East diplomacy, tackle the economic crisis that has cost millions of Americans their jobs, and reverse some of the more controversial policies of the Bush administration.
Topping his domestic agenda has been his effort to win Congressional approval for his $825 billion (581 billion pound) economic recovery package, which was passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
While most Americans are more concerned about losing their jobs and paying their mortgages than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has made clear the United States cannot afford to allow Afghanistan to become a sanctuary again for al Qaeda to launch new attacks on U.S. soil.
Additional reporting by David Morgan, Andrew Gray and Matt Spetalnick