By Matt Spetalnick
An Afghan boy pushes his youngest brother on a wheelbarrow in a village in Charkh district, Logar province October 14, 2009.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Monday ruled out any consideration of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as part of President Barack Obamaâ€™s sweeping strategy review of the increasingly unpopular war there.
â€œWe are not leaving Afghanistan. This discussion is about next steps forward and the president has some momentous decisions to make,â€ Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a television program taped at George Washington University that will be aired by CNN on Tuesday.
Gates said the Afghan and Pakistani governments should not be â€œnervousâ€ about the U.S. review as Obama prepared to brief congressional leaders and to convene his war council again this week on how to deal with the deteriorating security situation.
â€œI donâ€™t think we have the option to leave,â€ said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. â€œThatâ€™s quite clear.â€
Obama faces pivotal decisions in the coming weeks after the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, presented a dire assessment of the eight-year-old war effort.
Earlier, Gates urged military advisers to speak â€œcandidly but privatelyâ€ but defended McChrystal, who has been criticized for appearing to lobby in public for his position that more troops need to be sent to Afghanistan.
â€œStan McChrystal is exactly the right person to be the commander in Afghanistan right now,â€ Gates said. â€œI have every confidence that, no matter what decision the president makes, Stan McChrystal will implement it as effectively as possible.â€
The debate within the Obama administration is now over whether to send thousands more U.S. troops, as McChrystal has requested, or scale back the U.S. mission and focus on striking al Qaeda cells, an idea backed by Vice President Joe Biden.
Gates suggested that the failure of the United States and its allies to put more troops into Afghanistan in earlier years — a period when former U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq — had given the Taliban an edge in Afghanistan.
â€œThe reality is that because of our inability, and the inability, frankly, of our allies, (to put) enough troops into Afghanistan, the Taliban do have the momentum right now, it seems,â€ Gates said, although he declined to discuss what options Obama may be considering.
As the strategy debate in Washington gathered steam, Afghan election authorities began a recount on Monday in the disputed presidential election held in August.
Allegations of fraud in what Gates called the â€œflawedâ€ election are among the reasons U.S. officials have cited for launching the review of policy toward Afghanistan.
With U.S. casualties on the rise, American public opinion has turned increasingly against what Obamaâ€™s aides once hailed as the â€œgood war,â€ in contrast to the unpopular war in Iraq that occupied the focus of Bush.
There also have been increasing calls from the anti-war left and foreign policy critics for a U.S. pullout. Dozens of protesters gathered outside the White House on Monday, and a few were arrested when they chained themselves to the gates.
Seeking to shore up support, Obama invited senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers to the White House on Tuesday to discuss the future course of the war. He is due to meet his national security team on Wednesday and Friday.
The Obama administration already has almost doubled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan this year to 62,000 to contend with the worst violence since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban rulers in 2001. The U.S. invasion was launched in the weeks after the September 11 attacks carried out by al Qaeda, which had been given a haven in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
McChrystal has warned in a confidential assessment that the war effort would end in failure without additional troops and changes in strategy.
But signing off on the 30,000 to 40,000 troop increase that McChrystal is said to have requested would be politically risky for Obama due to unease within his own Democratic Party and fatigue among the American public after eight years of war in Afghanistan and six in Iraq.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan suffered their worst losses in more than a year when fighters stormed remote outposts near the Pakistan border over the weekend. Eight American soldiers were killed on Saturday after tribal militia stormed two combat outposts in remote Nuristan province in eastern Afghanistan.