Barack Obama salutes fallen soldiers as he decides on Afghan conflict October 30, 2009
Giles Whittell in Washington
President Obama was hardly visible as the body of Sergeant Dale Griffin was carried down the ramp of a military transport. However, the silhouette of the Commander-in-Chief witnessing the return of America’s war dead before dawn may prove a defining image of his agonising over how to prevail in Afghanistan.
Mr Obama spent four hours at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where most bodies of American soldiers killed in wars arrive back on US soil, and where 18 flag-draped coffins landed on Wednesday night after the deadliest day for Nato forces in Afghanistan since 2005.
It was longer than many of Mr Obama’s official visits, and long enough, he said, to influence his thinking on future troop deployments to a war zone where eight years of fighting have yielded only a bloody stalemate.
It was a sobering reminder of the sacrifices of US servicemen and women, he said. “The burden that both our troops and our families bear in any wartime situation is going to bear on how I see these conflicts.”
The night helicopter flight to Delaware punctuated a debate on future US strategy in Afghanistan that is building to a climax with reports that Mr Obama will send substantial reinforcements but fewer than his commanding general would like.
Administration officials told reporters that Mr Obama was considering sending a new troop contingent but one that would fall short of the 44,000 soldiers requested by General Stanley McChrystal.
How the reinforcements will be used is expected to be addressed at a war council in the White House today, attended by the Secretary of Defence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the heads of the army, navy, air force and Marine Corps.
Pressure will then mount from allies and critics for a decision. A second-round vote for the Afghan presidency is scheduled for November 7 and the White House has all but ruled out a set-piece speech on US strategy in Afghanistan before then. On November 11 the President leaves on an eight-day trip to Asia, leaving a four-day gap when an announcement is most likely.
Private briefings by White House and Pentagon staff in recent days point to support for a “McChrystal light” strategy based on protecting civilians, winning over insurgents and accelerating the training of Afghan army units and police.
Mr Obama has requested a province-by-province breakdown of troop requirements and an analysis of how reinforcements would be used from General McChrystal’s staf.
News of the request fitted a pattern of preparation for the weightiest decision of a young presidency, but prompted accusations of micromanaging issues better left to commanders. “It’s nuts that we have to do all this in public,” one official said.
“People on the ground should be able to get on with it and not be second-guessed by know-it-alls in Washington.”
The visit to Dover Air Force Base was first suggested on Tuesday night. It was confirmed at noon on Wednesday but not publicised until Mr Obama was on board the presidential helicopter shortly before midnight.
After the 40-minute flight to Delaware he was driven to an air force chapel to meet relatives of the 15 soldiers and three Drug Enforcement Agency personnel.
Shortly before 4am Mr Obama joined the six-person military carry team responsible for taking the bodies from a C17 transport to a waiting van. Four times he boarded the aircraft to witness prayers for the fallen and the air crews that had brought them home. Four times he held a long salute on the runway as the transfer cases – the word “coffin” is not used by the Pentagon — were carried past him.
“It was hard not to be overwhelmed,” the White House spokesman, who was also present, said afterwards. Apart from a few words of thanks from Mr Obama on his flight back to the White House, no one spoke.http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article6896263.ece