WASHINGTON — President Obama won't walk away from the war in Afghanistan, the White House declared Monday.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates also appealed Monday for time and privacy for the president to come to a decision.
"Speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability," Gates told the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army.
A fierce Taliban attack that killed eight American soldiers over the weekend added to the pressure. The assault overwhelmed a remote U.S. outpost where American forces have been stretched thin in battling insurgents, underscoring an appeal from Obama's top Afghanistan commander for as many as 40,000 additional forces — and at the same time reminding the nation of the costs of war.
Last week, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, called publicly for the administration to add more resources, which prompted a mild rebuke from Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, for lobbying in public.
Obama may take weeks to decide whether to add more troops, but the idea of pulling out isn't on the table as a way to deal with a war nearing its ninth year, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
"I don't think we have the option to leave. That's quite clear," Gibbs said.
The question of whether to escalate the conflict after adding 21,000 U.S. troops earlier this year is a major decision facing Obama and senior administration policy advisers this week.
Obama also invited a bipartisan group of congressional leaders to the White House today to confer about the war. And he will meet twice this week with his top national security advisers.
Divided on Afghanistan, Congress takes up a massive defense spending bill this week.
Gates said Monday that Obama needs elbow room to make strategy decisions.
"It is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this right," Gates said at the Army conference. "In this process, it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations — civilians and military alike — provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately."
Gates has not said whether he supports McChrystal's recommendation to expand the number of U.S. forces by as much as nearly 60 percent. He is holding that request in his desk drawer while Obama sorts through competing recommendations and theories from some of his most trusted advisers.
"I believe that the decisions that the president will make for the next stage of the Afghanistan campaign will be among the most important of his presidency," Gates said.
Gates' remarks came days after McChrystal bluntly warned in London that Afghan insurgents are gathering strength. Any plan that falls short of stabilizing Afghanistan "is probably a shortsighted strategy," the general said.
Jones, a retired four-star Marine general, said of McChrystal's comments that it is "better for military advice to come up through the chain of command."
At issue is whether U.S. forces should continue to focus on fighting the Taliban and securing the Afghan population, or shift to more narrowly targeting al-Qaida terrorists believed to be hiding in Pakistan with unmanned spy drones and covert operations.
Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday the goal for the war remains to disrupt al-Qaida and prevent it from again threatening the United States, but they added that a reassessment of the means to do that is appropriate.
Speaking to CNN during a rare joint interview with Gates, Clinton said a "snap decision" about the next step would be counterproductive. The interview will air today.
Gates and some other advisers appear to favor a middle path. A hybrid strategy could preserve the essential outline of an Afghan counterinsurgency campaign that McChrystal rebuilt this summer from the disarray of nearly eight years of undermanned combat, while expanding the hunt for al-Qaida next door.
The top three U.S. military officials overseeing the war in Afghanistan favor continuing the current fight against the Taliban, and have concluded they need tens of thousands more U.S. troops beyond the 68,000 already there.
Officials across the Obama administration have acknowledged that the Taliban is far stronger now than in recent years, as underscored by the U.S. deaths in Nuristan province.