Jacksonville, Fla. (AP) - Despite Republican pressure to act quickly, President Barack Obama says he won't rush his decision about whether to send more troops to Afghanistan where 14 Americans died in the deadliest day for U.S. forces in more than four years.
"While I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests, I also promise you this -- and this is very important as we consider our next steps in Afghanistan: I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way," Obama said Monday during a visit to Naval Air Station Jacksonville. "I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary."
Obama spoke on a day when a U.S. military helicopter crashed while returning from the scene of a fire fight with suspected Taliban drug traffickers in western Afghanistan. Ten Americans, including three Drug Enforcement Administration agents, died in the crash. Four more troops were killed when two helicopters collided over southern Afghanistan.
It was the heaviest single-day loss of life since June 28, 2005, when 19 U.S. troops died, 16 of them aboard a Special Forces MH-47 Chinook helicopter that was shot down by insurgents.
Obama is nearing a decision on whether to commit large numbers of additional troops to the war next year. His top military commander in Afghanistan favors an increase of roughly 40,000, officials have told The Associated Press, which would allow the U.S. military to expand its reach in areas of the country's south and east now under Taliban sway.
Obama's visit to the naval air station came after he convened another in a series of White House war council sessions with about a half-dozen Cabinet officials and other top advisers earlier Monday in Washington amid Republican criticism that he is taking too long to choose his next move. T
he White House Situation Room session focused on the cooperation between U.S. military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan, White House officials said. Another session may be held later this week.
Obama did not tip his hand on how he might decide. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that a decision was still expected in the coming weeks.
A war plan that asks Obama to commit tens of thousands of additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan is too ambitious, a top Senate Democrat said in Washington on Monday.
Sen. John Kerry, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who was the White House's point man during last week's tense talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, praised commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal but said his plan for adding troops in Afghanistan "goes too far, too fast."
Kerry's stance would aim for a modest increase in American forces, treading middle ground between Republicans who have said Obama would put soldiers and the country at risk by rejecting McChrystal's larger request and anti-war Democrats who question whether the United States already has taken on too much in Afghanistan.
"Under the right circumstances, if we can be confident that military efforts can be sustained and built upon, then I would support the president should he decide to send some additional troops to regain the initiative," Kerry, D-Mass., said.
Fresh from several days of talks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Kerry warned that the United States also cannot risk a drastic shift in strategy that would focus narrowly on hunting terrorists.
"We all see the appeal of a limited counterterrorism mission, and no doubt it is part of the endgame, but I don't think we're there yet," Kerry said during remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations. "A narrow mission that cedes half the country to the Taliban could lead to civil war" in Afghanistan and threaten the fragile civilian government in Pakistan, he said.
Last week, former Vice President Dick Cheney said Obama should stop "dithering while America's armed forces are in danger."
"It's time for President Obama to do what it takes to win a war he has repeatedly and rightly called a war of necessity," Cheney said.
Gearan reported from Washington. AP White House Correspondent Jennifer Loven contributed to this report.
Obama is said to be nearing a decision on whether to commit large numbers of additional troops to the war next year.