Obama: Hard choices on Iraq, Afghanistan

January 28, 2009 5:58:51 PM PST
President Barack Obama said the fight against terrorism is "uppermost on our minds" as he takes over management of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but his first visit to the Pentagon as president ended with no decision on his campaign pledge to bring combat forces home from Iraq in 16 months. "We're going to have some difficult decisions that we're going to have to make surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan, most immediately," Obama said following a two-hour session with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Obama did not demand quick action on the Iraq withdrawal he promised, people in the meeting said, and the session seemed designed in part to reassure military leaders and the rank and file that a new commander in chief understands the tolls that two lengthy wars have taken on the military.

"Obviously, our efforts to continue to go after extremist organizations that would do harm to the homeland is uppermost on our minds," Obama said, promising additional civilian resources to help a stretched military.

Obama pledged during his campaign to immediately order the withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq by May 2010. He said he would call in the Joint Chiefs and tell them so on his first day in office, a bit of campaign hyperbole that has evolved in practice into a series of consultations with military leaders, including commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The new president also has said he would adjust his timeline if it would risk the safety of U.S. troops remaining behind to train Iraqis and fight al-Qaida or if it would cause backsliding in Iraqi stability.

At Wednesday's meeting, the challenges facing military commanders closing down one war and widening another were discussed at length, said a defense official who was there. There was no explicit discussion of timelines, the official said, either Obama's or alternatives quietly preferred by some military leaders.

"It was not that kind of meeting," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe what he called a candid and far-ranging give-and-take.

Obama remains committed to closing down the Iraq war, which he has called a mistake, and shifting military and other resources to Afghanistan. At some point soon, Obama will have to sign off on specific troops movements in both places.

The White House said earlier Wednesday that Obama's review of how to wind down the war in Iraq will conclude soon, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Tuesday that they hope to present Obama with a menu of options quickly.

Obama peppered the chiefs with questions and "was not strictly in receive mode" during the 90-minute meeting, said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.

"This was a conversation at a much higher elevation about global threats the United States faces, about in particular the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the president was, of course, keenly interested in hearing from the chiefs about the health of their forces," Morrell said. "And each of the chiefs offered him a candid assessment of how they're doing."

Specific troop deployments to Afghanistan and the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were not discussed at the meeting, Morrell said.

On Iraq, it seems increasingly likely that Obama will adopt a slower calendar in deference to civilian and military advisers who fear that security would erode with a fast exit.

Obama is taking a careful step-by-step approach to making one of the most watched decisions of his young presidency, and he has left himself leeway to step back from a campaign pledge that struck some military leaders as rash or arbitrary. At one point, before they were part of the Obama administration, both Mullen and Gates were in that category.

The deliberate pace heeds the advice of Gates, the only member of Republican President George W. Bush's war Cabinet whom Obama asked to stay on. Gates has said he wanted to ensure that Obama heard from a long list of military leaders.


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