Obama salutes coffins returning from Afghanistan

Well the US President Barack Obama has other issues apart from the US economy weighing heavily on his mind. The President has greeted the flag-draped coffins of American soldiers coming home from Afghanistan.

He left the White House just before midnight to join senior military officials and grieving families at an air force base north of Washington. The solemn visit comes as he continues to weigh the difficult decision about America’s future strategy in Afghanistan.

North America correspondent Lisa Millar reports.

LISA MILLAR: The cargo plane had already landed when Barack Obama arrived at the Dover air force base just before midnight. He stood at salute while the coffins, draped with American flags, were carried across the tarmac.

Occasionally he’d climb into the belly of the plane and assist. This is always a solemn ceremony but it was the first time the President had taken part.

BARACK OBAMA: The burden that both our troops and our families bear in any wartime situation is going to bear on how I see these conflicts and it is something that I think about each and every day.

LISA MILLAR: Historians like Larry Sabato from the University of Virginia struggle to recall if any other president had done something similar.

LARRY SABATO: I couldn’t find one. Nothing like this, at least what occurred at Dover air force base, and overnight the President essentially pulled an all nighter doing this and I think it was brought off in a very dignified way, a very appropriate way.

LISA MILLAR: These were the bodies of the 15 soldiers and three government personnel who were the victims of the deadliest month in Afghanistan since the war began.

Barack Obama is under enormous pressure to decide what America’s strategy should be. His commanders are asking for more troops. It’s a decision the President just this week vowed he wouldn’t rush.

BARACK OBAMA: I won’t risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary.

LISA MILLAR: Every day there are calls for him to speed up that decision, some of the loudest coming from his former opponent Senator John McCain.

JOHN MCCAIN: Every day that goes by without that decision being made, the more days there are where young Americans are unnecessarily in harm’s way, in my view.

LISA MILLAR: Lisa Curtis from the Heritage Foundation agrees it’s time for a decision.

LISA CURTIS: You know, there’s a fine line between debating and looking as if you’re wavering.

LISA MILLAR: You think he’s taken too long with this decision?

LISA CURTIS: I do. I think the ongoing public debate has already cost the US credibility with our NATO allies, I think it’s confused our Afghan and Pakistani partners, you know, who are now sort of hedging their bets.

So I think it is important that he be clear about a US strategy for the region, and that he do that sooner rather than later.

LISA MILLAR: Tomorrow will be the President’s seventh meeting with military and White House advisers since the review of the Afghanistan strategy began. The White House says his decision could come at any time.