JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, accused by some of dithering over a new strategy for Afghanistan, vowed on Monday not to be rushed into a decision over whether to send more U.S. troops to the war zone.
Obama spoke to U.S. Navy personnel in Jacksonville on the same day 14 Americans were killed in helicopter crashes in Afghanistan and shortly after he met top advisers for a sixth time about a new Afghan strategy that the White House said was still weeks away.
Obama is debating whether to follow the advice of his military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who wants to send at least 40,000 more U.S. forces there.
Just last week, the White House rejected former Vice President Dick Cheney’s charge that Obama was “dithering” over the strategy review and needed to send more troops.
“I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way,” Obama said to applause from the sailors at the event and their families. “I won’t risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt.”
“Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, the defined goals as well as the equipment and support you need to get the job done,” Obama said, vowing not to have a situation where troops in the field are not supported by people at home.
Opinion polls show flagging public support for the war effort and members of Obama’s own Democratic Party are divided over whether to send more troops.
The United States now has 65,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is expected to reach 68,000 later this year. Other countries, mainly NATO allies, have some 39,000 troops there.
Obama expressed condolences to the families of the latest 14 Americans killed in Afghanistan.
Three special agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration were among those who died in the helicopter crash in western Afghanistan, said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who hailed their work in fighting the drugs trade there.
On the Air Force One flight from Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama met with Vice President Joe Biden and other senior advisers at the White House for the latest session on Afghanistan.
DECISION IN “COMING WEEKS”
Gibbs said Obama’s decision on a new strategy will take place “in the coming weeks.”
ABC News cited unnamed sources as saying Obama’s decision likely will come between Afghanistan’s run-off election on November 7 and his departure for Japan on November 11.
The Pentagon carried out internal assessments of the two main proposals for troop levels -- sending roughly 40,000 more troops or a far smaller number, an option McChrystal and other defense officials see as having a higher risk of failure.
The reviews were overseen by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one military official said.
Senator John Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave conditional support for additional troops.
He told the Council on Foreign Relations he would support more troops only if there were enough “reliable” Afghan forces to partner with as well as local leaders who could deliver basic services to the people.
“What we need, above all, what our troops deserve -- and what we haven’t had -- is a comprehensive strategy, military and civilian combined,” Kerry said.
Obama is also looking at a “civilian surge” of boosting staff in areas stabilized by the military and seeking to improve the capacity of the Afghan government.
Kerry, who was in Afghanistan last week to put pressure on President Hamid Karzai to accept a run-off election, was scathing of the U.S. civilian effort so far.
“Our civilian presence there is disgraceful compared to what it ought to be relative to the challenge,” Kerry said.
But Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew sought to squash criticism, telling reporters earlier that the State Department was on track to get nearly 1,000 people in place by year-end.
There are now just over 600 U.S. civilians in Afghanistan, including specialists from the treasury and agriculture departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Lew.
The Bush administration struggled to find enough civilians for its mission in Iraq during the height of the conflict there but Lew said this was not a problem in Afghanistan.
“We have many more people applying than there are positions,” said Lew.
Writing by Steve Holland and Sue Pleming; additional reporting by Adam Entous; Editing by Philip Barbara and John O'Callaghan