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By Phil Stewart and Adam Entous
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has received a request for more troops by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, moving him a step closer to a long-awaited decision on a new military buildup.
The document recommends sending up to 40,000 additional U.S. and NATO troops to support the stalled, eight-year-old Afghan campaign on top of the 104,000 currently in place, according to congressional officials.
Obama, who has launched a review of his administration's six-month-old war strategy, remains undecided on whether to send in more troops -- the recommendation of the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, to try to reverse gains by a resurgent Taliban, officials said.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama received the request from Defence Secretary Robert Gates last Thursday before travelling to Europe, where he met with McChrystal. It was unclear how long Obama would take to act on the troop request.
"We're going to go through this process of evaluating the goals and the strategy, and ... at a point after that, we'll get to discussing resources," Gibbs said.
Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, said in Washington he expected Obama to settle on a strategy and troop levels later this month or in early November.
A U.S. official said Obama held a roughly three-hour strategy review on Wednesday focussing on Pakistan, ways to improve cooperation with Islamabad and how to continue "disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda." Another session on Friday will focus primarily on Afghanistan.
The decisions may be the most important, and difficult, of Obama's young presidency, congressional leaders say.
BACKLASH OR CRITICISM?
U.S. and NATO casualties have risen and public support for the eight-year-old war has eroded. Sending as many as 40,000 additional troops could spark a backlash within Obama's own Democratic Party.
Sending a smaller number of troops, or no troops at all, will open Obama up to further criticism from congressional Republicans and, possibly, the military, for taking a more politically palatable middle-road approach.
CBS News, without citing named sources, reported that McChrystal wanted to ask for 50,000 troops but was convinced to lower the request to 40,000.
An alternative to the current counter-insurgency strategy, backed by Vice President Joe Biden, would focus more narrowly on air strikes against al Qaeda targets.
But Obama has told congressional leaders that he would neither substantially reduce the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, nor shift the strategy to focus mainly on hunting militants.
Officials said strong consideration was being given to a war strategy that incorporates both counter-insurgency and counterterrorism operations inside Pakistan's tribal areas.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said McChrystal's request, which will be kept secret, was based upon the assumption that the United States was pursuing a counter-insurgency strategy. This would focus more on securing the support of the Afghan people than killing militants.
"If the decisions that are made in the coming weeks are different from that, there can be adjustments made to the request," Morrell said.
Gates has yet to provide the president with his personal recommendations, the Pentagon said.
A pivotal player in the decision making, Gates has said that many of his earlier reservations about adding forces have been addressed. He remains a strong proponent of a counter-insurgency strategy, which could signal that he may be leaning towards a further buildup.
Pressure has been mounting on Obama for weeks to make a swift decision. Republican Sen. John McCain, who was defeated by Obama in last year's presidential election, repeated his call for Obama to implement the commander's recommendations and not take "half-measures."
(Additional reporting by David Alexander, Caren Bohan, Sue Pleming, Susan Cornwell and JoAnne Allen; Writing by Adam Entous and Phil Stewart; Editing by Chris Wilson)