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By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. veterans criticized President Barack Obama's lengthy review of Afghan war strategy, saying on Thursday the drawn-out debate in Washington was a direct threat to troops and the nation's defence.
The head of Veterans of Foreign Wars, a group representing 1.5 million former soldiers, issued a tersely worded statement urging Obama to follow the advice of his military commanders, who want more troops for the eight-year war.
"The extremists are sensing weakness and indecision within the U.S. government, which plays into their hands," said Thomas J. Tradewell Sr., a Vietnam veteran and head of VFW.
That was "evidenced by the increased attacks in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan," he said.
"I fear that an emboldened enemy will now intensify their efforts to kill more U.S. soldiers," Tradewell added.
Obama addressed the group in August when he called the conflict in Afghanistan "a war of necessity" and said the United States remained committed to stabilizing the country.
At a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in San Francisco, Obama reflected briefly on the difficulties of the Afghan war as he reviews war strategy.
"Iraq was hard. Afghanistan is harder," he said.
U.S. combat deaths have risen since Obama ordered a troop build-up in March to confront a resurgent Taliban and opinion polls this month have shown softening public support for the campaign.
Many of Obama's fellow Democrats in Congress oppose sending more troops, as recommended by General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Officials say he has recommended deploying an additional 40,000 soldiers, beyond the 68,000 due to be in place by the end of this year.
"I urge the president to heed the assessment and advice of his military leaders," Tradewell said, adding Obama needed to be "decisive during this critical juncture."
The comments by war veterans is likely to further embolden Obama's Republican critics, who support a build-up and have urged the president -- known for his careful, deliberative style -- to quickly make up his mind.
The White House has defended the review, saying there must be a workable strategy before more troops are put in harm's way.
FRANCE SAYS NO, NATO WAITS FOR U.S.
Other nations, mainly NATO allies, have some 39,000 troops in Afghanistan and it is not clear how many of them would follow any eventual U.S. calls for an additional build-up.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy again ruled out sending more soldiers to Afghanistan, after Britain said it was ready to send 500 additional troops.
"Is it necessary to stay in Afghanistan? I say 'yes.' And to stay to win," Sarkozy told Le Figaro newspaper. "But France will not send one more soldier."
NATO's top defence officials are set to examine proposals on Saturday for a big troop surge but NATO military officials said any such escalation hinged on a decision by Obama.
"Inevitably everybody is waiting for a U.S. lead," said one senior European officer, who did not want to be identified.
One of the complicating factors in deciding on a new strategy in Afghanistan was the inconclusive August election where widespread fraud was reported.
Afghanistan's former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, a longshot candidate in the August poll, said he expected an election announcement on Friday or Saturday.
Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington said in a New York Times interview that President Hamid Karzai's government was preparing for the commission auditing the vote to announce on Saturday a runoff was necessary.
"Chances are there will be a second round, although it was not so sure up to a couple of days ago, but now it looks like there will be a second round," Said Jawad said in the interview published online on Thursday, adding he had no direct contact with the commission.
Ghani said it was most likely that Karzai, the incumbent president, would not be declared the winner due to fraud uncovered by the electoral authorities and there would have to be a runoff between the two main candidates.
If, as expected, Karzai ultimately emerges as the winner, Ghani urged the international community to use its leverage to put pressure on him over corruption and other governance issues.
"He (Karzai) understands the depth of the crisis of his legitimacy," Ghani told the Atlantic Council in Washington. "Without international support, Mr. Karzai's government would not last 10 days and he keenly understands this."
Ghani was critical of the United Nations' role in running the election and called for an international panel to look at what had gone wrong in what he called a "game without rules."
(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming, Steve Holland and Adam Entous in Washington and David Brunnstrom in Kabul; Editing by John O'Callaghan, Peter Cooney and Xavier Briand)

Reuters