Obama says he is seeking 'endgame' to Afghan conflict

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 and Debbi Wilgoren
Wednesday, November 18, 2009; 2:56 PM

BEIJING -- A week into an Asia trip that has made few dramatic headlines, President Obama on Wednesday told reporters that he would announce a decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan "in the next several weeks" and defended his administration's efforts on reviving the economy, shutting down the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and trying five high-profile detainees in federal courts rather than military commissions.

During public appearances in Japan, Singapore and China, Obama mostly avoided talking about Afghanistan, his most pressing international policy decision. But the topic loomed large when he sat down for interviews with four U.S. television networks, whose representatives also asked him about a wide range of other issues that range from policy to personal.

Obama --who was interviewed by CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC -- said more firmly than ever that he is seeking an "endgame" to the long-running military effort in Afghanistan, emphasizing that he does not want to hand off the conflict to a future president. He offered only tepid praise for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, playing down the importance of a leader whose government has been accused of rampant corruption and ineffectiveness. The allegations of misconduct, especially in this past summer's elections, have become a central issue in the evolving U.S. policy, with Obama repeatedly saying the United States needs a reliable partner as it seeks to eliminate the ability of radical groups to launch plots from Afghan safe havens.

"He has some strengths, but he has some weaknesses," Obama said of Karzai. "I'm less concerned about any individual than I am with a government as a whole that is having difficulty providing basic services to its people."

Hours after the interview, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had been traveling with the president, arrived in Kaul for a planned but unannounced trip.

Obama told Chip Reid of CBS that he was livid about the information that has leaked during the Afghan review process -- "I think I am angrier than Bob Gates about it," Obama said, referring to the defense secretary -- and said spreading such confidential material would be a firing offense.

The president defended his administration's decision last week to try the accused planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in federal courts rather than military tribunals, and said he was still committed to closing the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, even though his original deadline for doing so will not be met. He told Fox he wants to continue efforts to revive the U.S. economy, but is wary of adding so much to the national debt that "people could lose confidence . . . in a way that could actually lead to a double-dip recession."

On a more personal note, Obama told CNN that he took time at the beginning of his China trip to meet briefly with his half brother, who lives in Shenzhen and made headlines recently with a self-published, semi-autobiographical novel. Asked whether he plans to read a new book by former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Obama said: "You know, I probably won't."

During the CBS interview, Obama addressed concerns that he appeared to have lost weight recently under the strain of the presidency. "My weight hasn't fluctuated too much," he said, sticking within "a five-pound bandwidth" over the past 30 years. He said he is "eating fine" and "sleeping fine," but acknowledged one obvious change since assuming office.

"My hair is going gray, and it's been the butt of a lot of jokes," Obama said, attributing the change to the impact of assuming the presidency during a time of two wars, a financial crisis, the H1N1 pandemic and "a host of regional issues."

Obama also acknowledged being affected by his encounters with wounded veterans who have returned from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"Whenever I visit Walter Reed or other military hospitals, I see the incredible sacrifices our men and women are making," he said. "That is a heavy weight."

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