President Barack Obama said after meeting with top U.S. military leaders yesterday that targeting extremists will be a top priority for the armed forces in Afghanistan.
Obama met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the secure Pentagon conference room known as the "Tank" for nearly two hours. He emerged to shake hands with troops and pledged to increase involvement in Afghanistan by civilian government agencies, addressing a longstanding Pentagon complaint. The meeting and Obama's comments follow recent indications that the new administration intends to limit U.S. goals in Afghanistan while intensifying the military aspects of the war. Vice President Joe Biden, who accompanied Obama yesterday, said earlier in the week that U.S. forces would step up action to counter recent Taliban advances.
"Obviously, our efforts to continue to go after extremists that would do harm to the homeland is uppermost on our minds," Obama said.
During his presidential campaign, Obama said that he would meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff soon after his inauguration to spell out their new mission to wind down the war in Iraq. Obama made no policy announcements about Iraq, although White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday that the administration's Iraq review was nearly finished.
Pentagon press scretary Geoff Morrell said that Obama did not issue any orders during the gathering, instead looking for a discussion of threats against the U.S.
"He didn't come here just to download the chiefs' perspective on the world," Morrell said. "He came here to engage them in a conversation about the threats we as a nation face and the risks that face us around the world."
Pentagon officials have spent months conducting reviews of the Afghanistan strategy, hoping to guide the new administration's own review.
The Bush administration advocated ways of developing democratic governance in Afghanistan. But in recent days, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have pushed for more limited objectives.
"We have to step back and think what U.S. national interests are in Afghanistan," said a government official, speaking about the review on condition of anonymity because it is not final.
Many military officials said they believe the armed services should focus on a campaign against extremists, while the work of building a democracy, assisting with civil justice and other goals should be left to the State Department and related agencies.
In his remarks, Obama said he would involve other agencies more deeply in the effort.
"We had for a long time put enormous pressure on our military to carry out a whole set of missions," Obama said, referring to nation-building functions. "And that's something that I spoke with the Chiefs about and that I intend to change."