WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Tuesday ruled out shrinking the Afghanistan war to a counterterrorism campaign. Yet he did not signal whether he is prepared to send any more troops to the war zone, according to several officials.
House and Senate leaders of both parties emerged from a nearly 90-minute conversation with Obama with praise for his candor and interest in listening. But politically speaking, all sides appeared to exit where they entered, with Republicans pushing Obama to follow his military commanders and Democrats saying he should not be rushed.
Obama is examining how to proceed with a worsening war that has claimed nearly 800 U.S. lives and sapped American patience. Launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to defeat Taliban and rid al-Qaida terrorists of a home base, the war has lasted longer than ever envisioned - eight years today.
Obama said the war would not be reduced to a narrowly defined counterterrorism effort, with the withdrawal of many U.S. forces and an emphasis on special operations forces that target terrorists in the dangerous border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Two senior administration officials aides say such a scenario has been inaccurately characterized and linked to Vice President Joe Biden, and that Obama wanted to make clear he is considering no such plan.
The president did not show his hand on troop increases. His top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has bluntly warned that more troops are needed to right the war, perhaps up to 40,000 more. Obama has already added 21,000 troops this year, raising the total to 68,000.
Obama may be considering a more modest building of troops - closer to 10,000 than 40,000 - according to Republican and Democratic congressional aides. But White House aides said no such decision has been made.
The president insisted he will make a decision on troops after settling on the strategy ahead. He told lawmakers he will be deliberate yet show urgency.
Public support for the war in Afghanistan is dropping. It stands at 40 percent, down from 44 percent in July, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.
The White House said Obama won't base his decisions on the mood on Capitol Hill or eroding public support for the war.
"The president is going to make a decision - popular or unpopular - based on what he thinks is in the best interests of the country," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.
U.S., Afghan troops hunt militants
American and Afghan troops swept through forested mountains in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing 40 militant fighters in a hunt for insurgents responsible for one of the deadliest attacks of the war on U.S. troops, the Defense Ministry said. Ten Afghan soldiers were also killed during the operations since Monday, most of them in Nuristan province's Kamdesh district, an official said. Eight Americans and two Afghan security troopers died Saturday after hundreds of Taliban militants overwhelmed their thinly manned garrisons.
Senate approves war spending
The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill bringing the U.S. tab for the war in Afghanistan to about $300 billion. The $626 billion measure, passed 93-7, combines $128 billion for overseas military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with $498 billion for the rest of the Defense Department's budget. An analysis by congressional researchers puts the tally for Afghanistan at about $300 billion and for Iraq at more than $700 billion since Sept. 11, 2001 - totaling more than $1 trillion.