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By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama planned a ninth session with top advisers on Afghanistan on Monday as he neared a decision on whether to send troops and fought Republican charges that he is taking too long to make up his mind.
The White House said Obama would meet with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and other officials at 8 p.m. EST/0100 GMT Tuesday in the high-security Situation Room.
It will be the ninth such meeting as Obama nears a decision on whether to add as many as 40,000 troops to an 8-year-old war that was started after the September 11 attacks and that has begun to try the patience of the American people.
Obama was not expected to announce his plans until after the Thanksgiving holiday this week.
"The first possible time would be sometime next week," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
NATO officials said the alliance will hold a December 7 meeting to raise forces for Afghanistan, with the expectation that Obama will have laid out his plans for U.S. troops by then.
The president has been reviewing war strategy in Afghanistan for nearly three months after Army General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander there, said in a report that conditions were deteriorating and more troops were needed.
There are about 110,000 foreign troops, including 68,000 American soldiers, in Afghanistan fighting a stepped-up Taliban insurgency.
AMERICANS DIVIDED
Obama's top national security advisers, including Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are believed to have rallied around options that would send 30,000 to 40,000 more troops and trainers.
Obama faces conflicting pressures on Afghanistan. Americans are divided about whether to send more troops. Republicans in the U.S. Congress insist more troops are needed to prevent a Taliban resurgence, while his own Democrats in general would like to see the United States find a way out of Afghanistan.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney told a conservative talk show radio host that Obama was taking too long to decide.
"The delay is not cost-free," he said. "Every day that goes by raises doubts in the minds of our friends in the region about what you're going to do, raises doubts in the minds of the troops."
Gibbs defended the president.
"This is a complicated decision," he said. "I think the American people want the president to take the time to get this decision right, rather than to make a hasty decision."
Two veteran Democratic lawmakers have called for imposing a "war tax" to pay for a troop surge. The two were David Obey, chairman of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, and Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A congressional aide said that under the idea, families earning less than $150,000 a year would be taxed at 1 percent of their tax rate. The tax would be higher for those in the $150,000 to $250,000 range, and those making $250,000 or more.
But Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, opposed it. "Someone has to demonstrate how it can be done," Inouye said.
The White House's Gibbs said it was premature for him to comment since Obama had yet to settle on a troop plan.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll found last week that 46 percent of Americans support a large influx of troops to fight insurgents and train the Afghan military, while 45 percent back a smaller number of new U.S. forces focussed more on training.
Obama and his advisers have debated options ranging from sending tens of thousands more troops to limiting troop increases and concentrating on attacking al Qaeda targets.
One factor that has complicated the deliberations has been concerns about corruption in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. Obama has said he wants to ensure he has a reliable partner there.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan, Kim Dixon and Adam Entous; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

Reuters