President Barack Obama said Wednesday he had "difficult decisions" to make on Iraq and Afghanistan after his first meeting as commander-in-chief at the Pentagon with military brass.
No decisions were made at the more than 90-minute session with the military chiefs, officials said, and Obama, who is weighing accelerating the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and boosting U.S. forces in Afghanistan, gave no clue whether he intends to stick with a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq.
"We're going to have some difficult decisions we're going to have to make surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan, most immediately," he said after his meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"Obviously our efforts to go after extremist organizations that do harm to our homeland is uppermost on our minds," he added.
Diplomacy over military
Obama's visit to the Pentagon was low-key, compared to his trip to the State Department last week, possibly signaling his intention to stress diplomacy over military power in world affairs.
He appeared to take a swipe at his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, saying that for too long the United States had relied too heavily on its military to achieve its strategic objectives and too little on diplomacy.
"We have for a long time put enormous pressure on our military to carry out a whole set of missions, sometimes not with the sort of strategic support and the use of all aspects of American power to make sure that they are not carrying the full load," he said.
Obama said he wants a responsible and phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, where violence has dipped markedly in the past year. On the presidential campaign trail, he said a complete withdrawal could be achieved within 16 months.
Obama also ordered a comprehensive review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, and a White House official said on Wednesday it would have a "significant non-military component," a likely reference to development aid.
The situation has deteriorated sharply in Afghanistan in recent months amid rising violence and a resurgent Taliban insurgency that has largely cost Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government control of the provinces.
U.S. greatest military challenge
Gates on Tuesday described Afghanistan as America's greatest military challenge.
The Obama administration is considering almost doubling the U.S. force in Afghanistan from 36,000 to more than 60,000 within 18 months. Vice President Joe Biden warned Americans over the weekend to brace for a rise in U.S. troop casualties.
The Pentagon's ability to boost its forces in Afghanistan depends partly on how quickly it can withdraw them from Iraq, where 140,000 troops are deployed.
It will be closely monitoring the performance of Iraqi forces during provincial elections this weekend. If they perform well that could allow U.S. forces to speed up their withdrawal.
Obama's visit to the Pentagon was part of a whirlwind start to his presidency that has seen him plunge into Middle East diplomacy, tackle the economic crisis that has cost millions of Americans their jobs, and reverse some of the more controversial policies of the Bush administration.
Topping his domestic agenda has been his effort to win Congressional approval for his $825 billion economic recovery package, which was passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
While most Americans are more concerned about losing their jobs and paying their mortgages than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has made clear the United States cannot afford to allow Afghanistan to become a sanctuary again for al-Qaeda to launch new attacks on U.S. soil.