WASHINGTON // Barack Obama shot back at critics who have accused him of taking too long to decide the way forward in Afghanistan, saying that he will not rush a decision on whether to significantly increase the US presence in the central Asian war zone. "I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way," Mr Obama told thousands of military personnel and their families at a gathering in Jacksonville, Florida. "I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary."
The president has been engaged in an intense review of the war effort, sitting down this week to the sixth closed-door meeting with his national security team in a little over a month. He still must decide whether to deploy an additional 44,000 troops, as requested by his top commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal, who has said that a failure to do so in the next year could result in defeat. A major strategic shift would be the second initiated by Mr Obama, who approved the deployment of 21,000 troops in March.
But the amount of time the president has taken to arrive at a decision has increasingly become fodder for his critics, some of whom have said his indecisiveness could harm US troops. In a speech last week, Dick Cheney, George W Bush's vice president and a prominent critic of the present administration's national security policy, called on Mr Obama to "stop dithering" and "do what it takes to win".
"Make no mistake," Mr Cheney said while accepting an award from the Center for Security Policy in Washington, "signals of indecision out of Washington hurt our allies and embolden our adversaries." In appearances on Sunday talk shows, some Republicans voiced a similar impatience with the president's pace. "I'm afraid that with every passing day, we risk the future of the success of the mission," Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, said on Fox News Sunday.
"We already have men and women who are in danger there now," added John McCain, Mr Obama's rival in last year's presidential election, who appeared on CBS's Face the Nation. "The sooner we implement the strategy, the more we will be able to ensure their safety." The Obama administration, for its part, has repeatedly dismissed such criticism or any suggestion that it is unnecessarily endangering troops. "What Vice President Cheney calls 'dithering,' President Obama calls his solemn responsibility to the men and women in uniform and to the American public," Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said last week. "I think we've all seen what happens when somebody doesn't take that responsibility seriously."
The administration received some unlikely support from George Will, a prominent conservative columnist, who also criticised Mr Cheney's attack. "A bit of dithering might have been in order before we went into Iraq in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction," Mr Will said. "We have much more to fear in this town from hasty than from slow government action." So far the White House has declined to give any indication of when a decision might come. In a press briefing on Monday, Mr Gibbs said the final decision could arrive "at any moment". He later said he expected a decision "in the coming weeks".
Some have speculated that Mr Obama will hold off until after the scheduled November 7 run-off election, which the administration has said is crucial to future political stability in Afghanistan and ensuring the United States has a credible Afghan partner. Meanwhile, the number of casualties continues to rise. Eight soldiers and an Afghan civilian were killed yesterday in bomb attacks in the south and separate helicopter crashes killed 14 Americans on Monday, among them US drug-enforcement agents. 55 US troops have now been killed in Afghanistan in October, making it the deadliest month for US forces since the eight-year conflict began.
In a separate public appearance, Senator John Kerry, who was responsible for persuading Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, to accept evidence of fraud in the voting in August and participate in the second round of voting, said he thought Gen McChrystal's request for 44,000 troops "reaches too far, too fast". "The bottom line is that deploying additional troops won't result in sustainable gains if the Afghan security, civilian, and governance capacity isn't there," Mr Kerry said in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent research organisation.
"Right now, as our generals will tell you, in many places, too many places, it isn't." Mr Kerry, who met with Mr Obama last week, praised the president for taking the time to investigate all options on the table. "I believe President Obama has been right to deliberate and take the time necessary in order to find the best policy." email@example.com