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Obama: Won't rush Afghan. decision

From NBC's Athena Jones
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- After spending the morning discussing the strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan with his national security team at the White House, President Obama told the crowd at the Naval Air Station here Monday afternoon that he would not rush his decision on whether to deploy more troops to the volatile region.

In brief remarks to some 3,500 sailors, Coast Guard, Army, Guard and Reserve personnel and military families, Obama thanked servicemen and women for their willingness to sacrifice for their country and called that service an inspiration to him as commander-in-chief, a role he called his greatest honor.

"While I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests, I also promise you this-and this is very important as we consider our next steps in Afghanistan: I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way," the president said. "I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, we will back you up. Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, the defined goals and the equipment and support you need to get the job done."

The war in Afghanistan has grown increasingly unpopular with the American public, with casualties mounting as troops fight a resurgent Taliban. The president and his national security team have held a series of meetings to discuss how to move forward in the region, including whether to approve a troop increase in the tens of thousands.

Some Republicans critics -- most recently former Vice President Dick Cheney -- have accused Obama of being too slow to make a decision, something they argue endangers American troops.

In a gaggle aboard Air Force One en route to Florida, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said a decision on strategy in Afghanistan "could come at any moment" but said could not say whether that would be before or after the Nov. 7 presidential runoff there.

The president also addressed the 14 servicemembers killed in helicopter crashes in Afghanistan today, saying his prayers went out to them, their civilian colleagues and their families.

"They were willing to risk their lives, in this case, to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda and its extremist allies," he said. "And today, they gave their lives -- that last full measure of devotion-- to protect ours."

Obama met privately with soldiers' families -- Gold Star families who have lost loved ones -- before the event and made a special point of honoring the family of Michael Scott Speicher, the Navy captain who died in Desert Storm and remains were returned here to Jacksonville earlier this year.