US to send more troops to Afghanistan

April 4, 2008 11:27:05 AM PDT
The United States intends to send many more combat forces to Afghanistan next year, regardless of whether troop levels in Iraq are cut further this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday. It is the first time the Bush administration has made such a commitment for 2009.

Gates told reporters while flying to this Persian Gulf nation from a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, that President Bush had made the pledge to other allied leaders at the summit on Thursday.

Bush was not specific about the number of additional troops that would go to Afghanistan in 2009, Gates said. The United States now has about 31,000 troops there - the most since the war began in October 2001 - and has been pressing the allies to contribute more.

Until now, the heavy commitment of U.S. forces in Iraq has been a constraint on the ability to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. But Gates said he did not believe that would be the case in 2009.

Gates also said he expected a Bush decision "fairly soon" on a proposal to reduce soldiers' combat tours from 15 months to 12 months, a move the Army deems urgent in order to relieve stress on troops and their families. Gates indicated for the first time publicly that there are drawbacks to doing it.

"It really is whether we're prepared - and ultimately the president - to sign up to something that clearly imposes some limits on what we could do in the future," Gates said. He was referring to the fact that 15-month tours enabled the Army to build up in Iraq in 2007 - a cornerstone of Bush's revised Iraq strategy known as the "surge" - with the limited number of ground combat brigades in its ranks.

"So the bottom line is, we're all still looking at that," he added.

His comment suggested a link between reducing tour lengths and the prospect of substantially expanding the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan next year. Such an expansion could make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Army to maintain troop rotations for both wars in 2009 and beyond if it is unable to substantially cut forces in Iraq in the near term, while tour lengths are shortened by three months.

Regarding the pledge to send more combat troops to Afghanistan in 2009, Gates said he advised Bush to make the statement to allied leaders in Bucharest even though the movement of the unspecified additional troops would ultimately be a decision for the next president, who will take office in January.

"The question arises, how can we say that about 2009?" Gates said. "All I would say is, I believe ... this is one area where there is very broad bipartisan support in the United States for being successful" in Afghanistan, where by many accounts progress against the Taliban resistance has stalled.

"I think that no matter who is elected president, they would want to be successful in Afghanistan. So I think this was a very safe thing for him to say," the Pentagon chief added.

Gates said he believed it was too early to decide how many additional combat forces the United States should plan on sending in 2009. He said it would depend on several things, including the extent of U.S. and NATO success on the battlefield this year, as well as the impact of a new senior U.S. commander taking over in coming months. Gen. David McKiernan is due to replace Gen. Dan McNeill this spring as the top overall commander in Afghanistan.

McNeill has said he believes he needs another three brigades - two for combat and one for training. That translates to roughly 7,500 to 10,000 additional troops. The Bush administration has no realistic hope of getting the NATO allies to send such large numbers.

McKiernan on Thursday told Congress that while he can't yet say how many more troops he would want there, he believes he needs additional combat and aviation forces, intelligence and surveillance capabilities, and training and mentoring teams.

In remarks to reporters after Bush made the statement at the summit Thursday, the president's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said any extra U.S. combat troop deployments would be in southern Afghanistan, where fighting is heaviest.

Gates said he believed that was a logical possibility but that it was too early to say they would go to the south.

"I put this in front of the president as a possibility, as something that I thought we ought to be willing to say and do," Gates said. He added that part of his reasoning was that such a pledge by Bush would have extra effect at a summit meeting where France announced that it will send several hundred combat troops to Afghanistan this year - a decision that Bush explicitly praised.

It is widely agreed within the administration and between the United States and its key allies in Afghanistan that they have too few troops on the ground to both effectively fight the Taliban resistance - especially in the volatile south - and accelerate the training of Afghan soldiers and police.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week there are not enough forces in Afghanistan to hold onto any security gains that troops make there. Troop commitments in Iraq, he said, make it impossible for the U.S. to meet requirements for at least two additional combat brigades.

"We've had significant impact there, but we don't have enough forces there to hold in what is a classic counterinsurgency," he said.

The question that has been contemplated for many months is how to find additional troops.

The administration initially pushed hard for other NATO countries to fill the gap. Having largely failed in that effort, the U.S. military now seems convinced that it will have to bear more of the load.

The U.S. currently has about 158,000 troops in Iraq. But that number is expected to dip to about 140,000 after July, when the last of the additional forces ordered to Baghdad last year return home.

That will reduce the number of combat brigades there from 20 to 15. And military leaders have expressed hope that after a pause in troop cuts for as much as two months, the Pentagon could continue to reduce troop levels in Iraq later this year.

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Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report. ---

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