Obama: Decision 'soon' on troops for Afghanistan

President Obama wrapped up his tour of Asian countries, which included stops in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea. He addressed security and environmental policy, the economy and U.S.-Asia relations.
By Anne E. Kornblut, Blaine Harden and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 13, 2009; 3:28 PM

TOKYO -- President Obama pledged Friday that he would make a decision "soon" on U.S. military options in Afghanistan and suggested that critics of his deliberate approach do not understand what is happening in the war-ravaged country.

In a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on the first stop of his Asian tour, Obama also stressed that the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan cannot be "open-ended," and he rejected the idea that he is waiting for some missing bit of information before deciding among at least four alternatives for reinforcing U.S. troops engaged in an eight-year war against Afghanistan's radical Islamist Taliban movement.

Addressing a sensitive domestic issue in Japan, Obama made it clear that he expects the Japanese government to implement a 2006 agreement under which a U.S. Marine air station at Futenma in a crowded part of Okinawa would be relocated to a more remote part of the island. Hatoyama, who took office in September, expressed support during his election campaign for moving the air base off Okinawa entirely, a position that has been rejected by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Hatoyama said Friday that he wants a resolution as soon as possible and warned that "as time goes by . . . it will become even more difficult to resolve the issue."

The two countries agreed Tuesday to form a high-level working group on Futenma, and both leaders indicated Friday that the group has been set up. Obama said the group "will focus on implementation of the agreement that our two governments reached with respect to the restructuring of U.S. forces in Okinawa, and we hope to complete this work expeditiously." He added: " Our goal remains the same, and that's to provide for the defense of Japan with minimal intrusion on the lives of the people who share this space."

The United States wants to relocate the Marine air station on Okinawa as part of a broader realignment of U.S. forces in Japan. The Pentagon views the move as a prerequisite for transferring as many as 8,000 Marines to Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific.

In response to questions about Afghanistan, Obama said his drawn-out deliberations over military options there -- unresolved after eight high-level war council meetings -- are focused not on nailing down any specific "datum of information" but on trying to determine what actions will enhance U.S. security.

Obama said he is committed to shutting down networks that plot terrorist activity against the United States, while also avoiding an "open-ended" troop commitment and ensuring that the government of Afghanistan is a reliable partner.

"It's a matter of making certain that when I send young men and women into war, and when I devote billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money, that it's making us safer, and that the strategies that are placed not just on the military side but also on the civilian side are coordinated and effective in our primary goal," Obama said.

"The decision will be made soon," he said. Critics of the lengthy process "tend not to be folks who, I think, are directly involved in what's happening in Afghanistan," Obama said. "Those who are recognize the gravity of the situation and recognize the importance of us getting this right."

Obama appeared before reporters with Hatoyama a few hours after arriving in Tokyo for the start of a week-long trip to Asia. The trip will span four countries and is Obama's first to the region as president.

During a 90-minute meeting at the Kantei, the Japanese equivalent of the White House, Obama and Hatoyama discussed climate change, Afghanistan and nuclear proliferation. Both leaders exchanged warm praise for each other, embracing the close relationship of the two countries. They minimized their differences, emphasizing instead their hopes for peace and stability in the region.

Declaring that the United States "is a Pacific nation," Obama said the future of the United States and Asia is "inextricably linked" and said his administration "will be deepening our engagement in this part of the world."

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