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Obama Rules Out Afghanistan Troop Cuts

Obama says he has yet to decide on general's request for more troops in Afghanistan, in meeting with congressional leaders

by James Sturcke and agencies

Barack Obama has ruled out substantially reducing troop numbers in Afghanistan, it emerged today.

US President Barack Obama, pictured in September 2009, Tuesday sat down with senior lawmakers driving a raging debate on US Afghan strategy, as he works towards a decision on whether to send thousands more troops to war. (AFP/File/Jim Watson) But he has still to decide whether to agree to a request from the head of US and Nato forces, General Stanley McCrystal, to dramatically increase the number of soldiers fighting in the eight-year-old conflict.

The president held a meeting in Washington yesterday with 18 Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, as he reviews the Afghan war policy. Politicians emerging from the meeting said Obama seemed to be seeking a middle ground and that views were divided on the way forward. Republicans urged Obama to heed his military commander's call for more troops.

Obama said he was not contemplating reducing troop levels in the near future under any scenario, a number of those at the meeting told the Washington Post.

Attendees at the closed-door event described tension, with some politicians reportedly airing concerns that accepting the general's recommendation would be costly in terms of both money and human life.

"I think a lot of senators and congressmen need to ask themselves how much money they are willing to put on the table, for how long and for what strategy," the Democratic senator John Kerry told the paper.

Congress must approve any additional resources but much of the president's party is resisting calls for more combat troops, forcing him to seek support from Republicans who favour McChrystal's strategy.

Republicans pressed Obama to order the escalation without delay, leading to a pointed exchange between the president and John McCain, his Republican opponent in last year's election, the New York Times reported.

McCain said time was "not on our side" and stressed "this should not be a leisurely process", according to several people in the room.

Obama reportedly replied: "John, I can assure you this won't be leisurely. No one feels more urgency to get this right than I do."

He sought to play down suspicions of friction with McChrystal. "I'm the one who hired him," Obama said, according to participants. "I put him there to give me a frank assessment."

The president told the meeting that his decision would be based on what he thought would be the best way to prevent future attacks on the US and its allies, an official said.

"He also made it clear that his decision won't make everybody in the room or the nation happy, but underscored his commitment to work on a collaborative basis," the official said.

At the heart of the debate within the Obama administration is whether it would be best to send more troops to Afghanistan and work to earn the trust of the Afghan people or to more narrowly focus the war effort using airstrikes against al-Qaida targets.

The Republican senator Judd Gregg said there was "no consensus" in the meeting about what should be done in Afghanistan, and the House of Representatives speaker, Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, spoke of the "diversity" of opinion in the room.

Last weekend heavy fighting in eastern Afghanistan left eight US troops dead and Nato forces said more than 100 militants died. It was the biggest loss of US life in a single battle since 2001 and added to growing public unease over the war.

On Monday, the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said leaving the war-torn country was not an option. Asked if pulling out was part of the assessment currently being debated in Washington, Gibbs replied "no", adding: "That is not something that has ever been entertained, despite the fact that people still get asked what happens if we leave Afghanistan. That's not a decision that is on the table to make."

But it is thought that Obama has deep reservations over committing to a further surge in troop numbers. McChrystal is understood to be calling for up to 45,000 additional fighters to help defeat the Taliban.

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