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Afghan, Pakistan carnage raises heat on Obama

world Updated: Oct 29, 2009 07:50 IST
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Carnage in Pakistan and America's bloodiest month in Afghanistan are sharpening President Barack Obama's dilemma on troop deployments while stoking political demands for swifter action.

"We watch this situation continue to deteriorate while this long protracted process of decision making goes on," Republican Senator John McCain told CBS on Wednesday.

"We are not operating in a vacuum. The president of the United States needs to make this decision and soon. Our allies are nervous and our military leadership is becoming frustrated."

The White House counters that Obama's soul searching is justified by the gravity of his choice on whether to plunge tens of thousands of people into the worsening war.

"I don't think the American people agree with Senator McCain on that," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

"I think it's important to hear and to get this right."

Already fragile US public opinion on the war is being tested by a rush of recent casualties in Afghanistan, with October the bloodiest month for American troops of the eight-year conflict so far.

Vicious bombings in Pakistan -- the latest killing 92 people in a Peshawar market Wednesday -- are meanwhile stirring new fears of instability and concern for the US-allied government in Islamabad.

The Peshawar bombing erupted hours after the start of a visit to Pakistan by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who vowed the United States would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with Pakistan's people in the anti-terror struggle.

But the fraud-tainted Afghan election, political maneuvering over the run-off, and a brazen Taliban attack on a UN compound in Kabul, which killed eight people, will hardly stem skepticism of the US Afghan mission.

Republicans see the turmoil of recent days, as a sign Obama must honor war commander General Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 more troops.

But Democratic Senator Russ Feingold spoke for many war opponents when he said he wanted success in Afghanistan but not at any price.
"The national security and the individual security to the American people is the most important issue to me," Feingold told MSNBC.

Outwardly, Obama, who prides himself on thriving under pressure, appears unphased by the quickening crisis, scheduling the next meeting of his exhaustive policy review with US military chiefs on Friday.

On Tuesday, he told servicemen and women in Florida he would not "rush" a decision on which lives depend.

Aides say no one takes the duty of ordering troops to war more seriously than Obama, as he must sign condolence letters to families of the fallen.

But time is running short to quell domestic political demands and meet the practical requirement of issuing deployment orders in time for any new troops to be in place by the next Afghan spring.

Expectations are mounting that Obama could reveal his response to war commander Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 more combat troops for Afghanistan before he leaves for an eight-day trip to Asia on November 11.

Gibbs said Tuesday that Obama was nearing the end of his review, and in another apparent sign that a decision may be near, senior officials anonymously floated a plan to protect Afghan population centers in the New York Times.

The resignation of a State Department Afghan expert, Matthew Hoh, who warned the US presence is making the insurgency worse, is meanwhile giving ammunition to those who question the rationale of the mission.

Obama is maneuvering on fragile political ground as he makes a decision shaped largely by national security and military considerations.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll this week showed that 47 percent of Americans back increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, compared to last month when 51 percent opposed the increase.

But only 43 percent wanted to send as many as 40,000 more troops as McChrystal has requested.

A Quinnipiac University survey last month found 65 percent of people willing to have US troops fight and possibly die in the war to ward off future terror attacks emanating from the region.

But only 38 percent wanted to see more troops sent to that fight.

"Obviously, increasing numbers of casualties among American soldiers are likely to have some affect on these numbers," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac polling institute on Wednesday.

One Quinnipiac finding gave Obama some temporary comfort: only a third thought America was heading for a new Vietnam-style quagmire.

"When that number starts to rise, then President Obama has got a political problem," said Brown.