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Obama Entering 'Decision-Making Phase' on War in Afghanistan

Obama meets McChrystal aboard AF1

WASHINGTON -- After five intense meetings on his war-fighting strategy in Afghanistan, President Obama is finished gathering data and assessing all the options and is now "in the decision-making phase," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told Fox.

"We have finished at the broad landscape level," Gibbs said. "We are in the decision-making phase now."

Gibbs added that a decision is far from imminent -- possible even "several weeks" away.

Obama gathered Wednesday for three hours with his national security team. Obama will have at least one more Afghanistan meeting next week, by which time there may be a decision on whether to hold a runoff election between Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and his chief challenger.

Though some administration officials and Obama advisers differ on whether a narrower counterterror-style approach or a broader counterinsurgency mission is the better approach to the Afghanistan war, all seem to agree that increasing non-military efforts to improve Afghanistan's agricultural industry and economy, rule of law and governing institutions is key to any success.

To those ends, Gibbs said, the exhaustive Situation Room briefings on Wednesday focused on future U.S. troops levels; training of the Afghan army and police forces; civilian assistance and the political stability and legitimacy of Karzai's government. Those discussions are largely complete.

"The meetings that go now will flow to the decision-making phase," Gibbs said. "All the discussions so far will impact the ultimate decisions."

Gibbs said he had no idea what Obama will decide on future U.S. troop levels, though he repeated his assessment from Wednesday's press briefing that troop levels will not be cut and the main decision looming is by how much to increase the U.S. combat footprint.

Wednesday's meeting, Gibb said, focused intensely on underlying security conditions in Afghanistan and how the U.S. mission going forward would influence the principle goal of securing territory and giving the government the tools necessary to boost internal security, a precursor to any consideration of reducing US forces, which now number about 68,000.

"There were a series of questions on the civilian side, a series of questions on the military side related to training," Gibbs said, summarizing where Obama was leading the discussion. "There were questions on the political situation and possible increases in civilian resources and ANSF training."

ANSF is the acronym for Afghan National Security Forces and refers to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. Gibbs said Obama is also trying to determine the metric or benchmarks he will use to measure the progress of Afghan Army and Police training and to assess progress in other government ministries.

"There has been some progress in all of these areas," Gibbs said. "But there's a long way to go."

Gibbs pointed to an inches-thick binder on his desk containing prep materials for Wednesday's meeting and said the senior military and diplomatic officials who have taken part in the five Afghanistan meetings so far produced a separate binder of similar size for each meeting. He said for each hour of the president's time in the Situation Room, senior military and diplomatic advisers have, on average, devoted two hours of prep time to answer Obama's questions and deal with underlying questions about the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other security, governance and development issues.

As to the perception in the minds of some that Obama appears indecisive, Gibbs said the critics confuse deliberation with dawdling.

"We have a process," Gibbs said. "It's the most intense the Afghanistan war has seen in 8 years. It takes time."

Plus, Gibbs said, the country and Congress need to have confidence in Obama's ultimate decision on troop strength and strategy. A lengthy process that tries to examine all angles of the conflict can produce such confidence, he said.

"The president is thinking about the American public and conveying to them what is next," Gibbs said. "There is a war-weary public."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.