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Gates: Military to adhere to Obama's decision

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US Marine Cpl. Matthew Doherty, of Bastrop, Texas, with 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 5th Marines, walks on a joint patrol with the Afghan Army, in Nawa district, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Oct. 4, 2009. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley) US Marine Cpl. Matthew Doherty, of Bastrop, Texas, with 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 5th Marines, walks on a joint patrol with the Afghan Army, in Nawa district, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Oct. 4, 2009. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
WASHINGTON (AP) - Despite the fierce policy divide inside the White House over Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that the military will fall in line with whatever President Barack Obama decides.

The debate over whether to send as many as 40,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan is a major element of the strategy overhaul that senior administration policy advisers will consider this week as they gather for at least two top-level meetings on the evolving direction in the war.

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 al-Qaida terrorists believed to be hiding in Pakistan with unmanned spy drones and covert operations.

"Speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability," Gates told the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army.

Until then, Gates said, Obama's military and civilian advisers need to give the president candid - but private - advice.

Gates has said he remains undecided on the strategy, and gave no hint Monday as to which camp he is leaning toward.

The top three U.S. military commanders overseeing the war in Afghanistan however, favor continuing the current fight against the Taliban, which could take as many as 40,000 additional U.S. troops.

Gates' comments come days after the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, bluntly warned a London audience that Afghan insurgents are gathering strength and any plan that falls short of stabilizing Afghanistan "is probably a shortsighted strategy."

On Sunday, Obama's national security adviser, former Gen. James Jones, offered a mild rebuke of McChrystal for his London speech.

It is "better for military advice to come up through the chain of command," said Jones.

But Jones also said that McChrystal "is in it for the long haul," beating back suggestions that the general's public remarks could jeopardize his job. "I don't think this is an issue," said Jones.

Jones' comments came amid growing government fissures over whether to send thousands of additional troops to the fight, and just hours after militant forces overwhelmed U.S. troops at two outposts near the Pakistan border, killing eight Americans.

Gates said Monday that Obama's decision on the future war strategy "will be among the most important of his presidency. So it is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this right."

Gates did not mention McChrystal in his comments, and made clear that all who are advising Obama in the war strategy should keep publicly quiet.

"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," Gates said.

Obama will meet twice this week with this top national security advisers, including Gates, to continue debating the strategy.

Jones insisted Sunday that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling to the Taliban, and he played down fears that the insurgency could set up a renewed sanctuary for al-Qaida. McChrystal has said that insurgents are gaining ground and the U.S. is in danger of failing unless more forces are sent to the fight.

"I don't foresee the return of the Taliban. Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling," Jones said. "The al-Qaida presence is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies."

U.S. officials also are waiting for the results of the Afghan elections, as disturbing reports of fraud grow.

Arguments on the U.S. strategy and troop requirements are also escalating among lawmakers.

"I would not commit to more combat troops at this time," said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. "There's a lot of other things that need to be done to show resolve. What we need a surge of is Afghan troops."

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., countered that if commanders want more troops, they should get them.

Jones and Kyl spoke on CNN's "State of the Union." Jones also appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation," as did Levin.

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Associated Press Writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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