WASHINGTON - The United States has not yet settled on the best strategy for the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and won't commit to sending more troops until it does, President Barack Obama said Wednesday after meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The two leaders met in the Oval Office for more than an hour, touching on a variety of issues that included trade irritants, energy and the continuing Afghan mission, in which Canada is a major partner.
But it was Obama's stark admission about the U.S. role in Afghanistan - the original goal of the mission is all but a distant memory, thanks in part to the lack of a clear course of action, he indicated - that commanded the most attention.
"We have lacked as clear of a strategy and a mission as is necessary in order to meet our overriding objective, which is to dismantle and disrupt and destroy al-Qaida," Obama said.
A recent influx of American troops and resources was intended primarily to ease immediate pressure on NATO allies like Canada and facilitate the Afghan elections, which took place Aug. 20 but remain shrouded by allegations of widespread fraud.
"There is no immediate decision pending on resources, because one of the things I'm absolutely clear about is you have to get the strategy right and then make determinations about resources," he said.
"You don't make determinations about sending young men and women into battle without having absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be."
The U.S. presence is a vital factor as Canada nears the self-imposed 2011 deadline for its own military deployment in Afghanistan - a deadline Harper was quick to point out will not result in an immediate end to Canada's presence in the country.
"Canada is not leaving Afghanistan," Harper said.
"Canada will be transitioning from a predominantly military mission into a mission that would be a civilian, humanitarian development mission after 2011.
"Whatever we and NATO and our UN allies are doing, that we make sure that eventually this country can stand on its own two feet, particularly on the security side."
Obama and Harper discussed a variety of subjects, most notably the economy, the flow of energy between the two countries and the various trade "irritants" that have cropped up in the wake of the global economic meltdown.
One irritant in particular - a U.S. policy of enforcing restrictions on foreign charter flights that effectively prevent Canadian sports teams from visiting more than one American city before returning home - appeared to be close to being resolved.
Harper referred to the president as "Barack" when he mentioned that a preliminary agreement had been reached between Air Canada and the U.S. Department of Transportation to ease the restriction, which the carrier had assailed as unfair.
When the conversation turned to the Canadian perception of protectionist "Buy American" policies in the U.S., Obama was quick to suggest the threat has been overblown by America's trading partners.
Trade between the U.S. and Canada remains robust, and there's no reason to think there's a major conflict brewing, he said.
"I'm glad to hear that Canadians see the recovery package as significant," said Obama, who noted that the efforts to breathe life into the U.S. economy were compliant with World Trade Organization restrictions.
"These are legitimate issues that have to be raised, but on the overall scale of our trade relationship, these shouldn't be considered the dominant (issue)," he said.
"That doesn't mean they're not a source of irritation between the United States and Canada."
Obama also pointed out that Harper has been persistent in making an issue out of the perceived slight. "He's been on the job on this issue."
The two leaders will next see each other at the two-day G20 summit in Pittsburgh, which gets underway Sept. 24.
Outside the White House, a handful of protesters were on hand to complain about so-called "dirty oil" from Canada's tarsands; earlier Wednesday, protesters dressed in seal costumes stained with red paint staged an event outside the Canadian Embassy.