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Obama Will Make Up Own Mind on Afghanistan

Updated 5:00 p.m. ET

The White House said Tuesday that President Barack Obama considers it "tremendously important" to listen to Congress about the flagging war in Afghanistan but will not base his decisions on the mood among lawmakers or eroding American public support for the war.

"The president is going to make a decision - popular or unpopular - based on what he thinks is in the best interests of the country," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. As for support from lawmakers, Gibbs said Obama is focused on getting his war strategy right, not on "who's for or who's against what."

Obama met at the White House with leaders of key war oversight and appropriations committees from both parties in the House and Senate. The session was part of a review of the war effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is expected to last several more weeks.

After the meeting, an administration official said Obama updated the 18 members present on the process of his review, and made it clear that he wants to get their input - and will continue to get their input going forward.

"The president underscored the importance of the decision, and the need to ensure that we have a strategy in place that guides a decision on resources. Given the importance of the policy to our security - and to our troops - the president said that he will be rigorous and deliberate, while moving forward with a sense of urgency," the official said.

The official added: "The president was clear that he will make the decision that he thinks will best prevent future attacks on the American homeland and our allies. He also made it clear that his decision won't make everybody in the room or the nation happy, but underscored his commitment to work on a collaborative basis with the understanding that everyone wants what is best for the country."

A core question is whether Obama will widen the war again after adding 21,000 U.S. troops earlier this year. The top three U.S. military officials overseeing the war favor continuing the fight against an emboldened Taliban and have concluded they need tens of thousands more U.S. troops beyond the 68,000 already there.

Yesterday, Obama's top defense and diplomacy advisers said the United States retains the Afghanistan war goal that Obama outlined just two months into his presidency - to sideline al Qaeda - but changing circumstances require a reassessment of how to get there.

A "snap decision" on whether to add more U.S troops would be counterproductive, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday.

Whatever the president decides, the military will salute, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.

"It's important that at the end of the day that the president makes a decision that he believes in," Clinton added.

The question of whether to further escalate the conflict after adding 21,000 U.S. troops earlier this year is a major decision facing Obama and senior administration policy advisers this week.

Obama also will meet twice this week with his national security team.

Divided on Afghanistan, Congress takes up a massive defense spending bill this week even before the president settles on a direction for the war.

Republican Sen. John McCain, Obama's opponent in last year's presidential election and one of the lawmakers expected at Tuesday's meeting, said he thinks it's critical that the administration avoid thinking of the insurgent Taliban and the al Qaeda terrorist network as separate issues.

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"If the Taliban returns, they will work with al Qaeda," he said on NBC television Tuesday morning. "It's just a historical fact. You can't separate the two. ... I strongly disagree with those who allege those are separate problems. They have worked together in the past and they will work together in the future."

Gates appealed Monday for calm amid the intense administration debate over the flagging war, and for time and privacy for the president to come to a decision. Gates' remarks stood as an implicit rebuke of the man he helped install as the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for lobbying in public for additional troops Obama may decide to forgo.

In two separate appearances Monday, Gates made the point that Obama needs elbow room to make strategy decisions about the war - as the internal White House debate goes increasingly public.

"It is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this right," Gates said at an Army conference. "In this process, it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations civilians and military alike - provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately."

Later, speaking alongside Clinton in an interview taped for CNN, Gates praised McChrystal and said no matter what Obama decides the general will execute it faithfully.

Gates has not said whether he supports McChrystal's recommendation to expand the number of U.S. forces by as much as nearly 60 percent. He is holding that request in his desk drawer while Obama sorts through competing recommendations and theories from some of his most trusted advisers.

Coming up on the "CBS Evening News": Afghanistan: The Road Ahead, an in-depth examination of the escalating conflict, airing this week at 6:30 p.m. ET.

CBSNews.com Special Report: Afghanistan

During the CNN session, Gates said, "Because of our inability and the inability, frankly, of our allies to put enough troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban do have the momentum right now."

The fierce Taliban attack that killed eight American soldiers over the weekend added to the pressure. The assault overwhelmed a remote U.S. outpost where American forces have been stretched thin in battling insurgents, underscoring the appeal from the top Afghanistan commander for as many as 40,000 additional forces - and at the same time reminding the nation of the costs of war.

In trying to blunt the impression that the White House and military are at odds, Gates did not name names. But his remarks came days after McChrystal bluntly warned in London that Afghan insurgents are gathering strength. Any plan that falls short of stabilizing Afghanistan "is probably a shortsighted strategy," the general said, and he called openly for additional resources.

That prompted Obama's national security adviser, retired four-star Gen. James Jones, to say Sunday that military advice is best provided "up through the chain of command."

Obama may take weeks to decide whether to add more troops, but the idea of pulling out isn't on the table as a way to deal with a war nearing its ninth year, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

"I don't think we have the option to leave. That's quite clear," Gibbs said.

At issue is whether U.S. forces should continue to focus on fighting the Taliban and securing the Afghan population or shift to more narrowly targeting, with unmanned spy drones and covert operations, al Qaeda terrorists believed to be hiding in Pakistan.

Gates and some other advisers appear to favor a middle path. A hybrid strategy could preserve the essential outline of an Afghan counterinsurgency campaign that McChrystal rebuilt this summer from the disarray of nearly eight years of undermanned combat, while expanding the hunt for al Qaeda next door.

The top three U.S. military officials overseeing the war in Afghanistan favor continuing the current fight against the Taliban, and have concluded they need tens of thousands more U.S. troops beyond the 68,000 already there.

Officials across the Obama administration have acknowledged that the Taliban is far stronger now than in recent years, as underscored by the U.S. deaths in Nuristan province.

The fighting Saturday marked the biggest loss of U.S. life in a single Afghan battle in more than a year. It also raised questions about why U.S. troops remained in the remote outposts after McChrystal said he planned to close down isolated strongholds and focus on more heavily populated areas as part of his new strategy to focus on protecting Afghan civilians.

Here's a list of senators and representatives invited to the White House meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan:

Senate:

Sen. Harry Reid, Majority Leader, D-Nev.
Sen. Dick Durbin, Majority Whip, D-Ill.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican Leader, R-Ky.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Republican Whip, R-Ariz.
Sen. Carl Levin, Armed Services Chairman, D-Mich.
Sen. John McCain, Armed Services Ranking Member, R-Ariz.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, Appropriations Chairman and Defense Subcommittee Chairman, D-Hawaii
Sen. Thad Cochran, Appropriations Ranking Member and Defense Subcommittee Ranking, R-Miss.
Sen. John Kerry, Foreign Affairs Chairman, D-Mass.
Sen. Richard Lugar, Foreign Affairs Ranking Member, R-Ind.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, Foreign Operations Appropriations Chairman, D-Vt.
Sen. Judd Gregg, Foreign Operations Appropriations Ranking Member, R-N.H.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Intelligence Committee Chair, D-Calif.
Sen. Kit Bond, Intelligence Committee Ranking Member, R-Mo.

House:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, Majority Leader, D-Md.
Rep. John Boehner, Republican Leader, R-Ohio
Rep. James Clyburn, Majority Whip, D-S.C.
Rep. Eric Cantor, Republican Whip, R-Va.
Rep. Ike Skelton, Armed Services Chairman, D-Mo.
Rep. Howard McKeon, Armed Services Ranking Member, R-Calif.
Rep. Howard Berman, Foreign Affairs Chairman, D-Calif.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Foreign Affairs Ranking Member, R-Fla.
Rep. David Obey, Appropriations Chairman, D-Wis.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, Appropriations Ranking Member, R-Calif.
Rep. Nita Lowey, Foreign Operations Appropriations Chairman, D-N.Y.
Rep. Kay Granger, Foreign Operations Appropriations Ranking Member, R-Texas
Rep. John Murtha, Appropriations, Defense Subcommittee Chairman, D-Pa.
Rep. Bill Young, Appropriations, Defense Subcommittee Ranking Member, R-Fla.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Intelligence Committee Chairman, D-Texas
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Intelligence Committee Ranking Member, R-Mich.