Reuters – January 17, 2007
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday he was sympathetic to commanders' request for more troops in Afghanistan and would look at several options with top military advisers in Washington.
Any significant rise in U.S. forces battling Taliban insurgents would add strain to a military stretched by the war in Iraq, where U.S. troop levels are to increase by more than 20,000.
Speaking at the end of his first visit to Afghanistan since he took office last month, Gates said Gen. David Richards, the British commander of the country's NATO-led security force, and other military leaders had made the case for more troops.
"They've indicated what they can do with different force levels," he told reporters aboard his plane just before it took off for Saudi Arabia from Bagram Air Base outside Kabul.
"If the people who are leading the struggle out here believe that there is a need for some additional help to sustain the success that we've had, I'm going to be very sympathetic to that kind of a request," Gates said.
The United States has around 23,000 troops in Afghanistan. Around half of them form part of the 33,000-strong NATO force while the rest conduct missions ranging from counter-terrorism to training Afghan soldiers.
Military commanders say they expect Taliban Islamist militants, who staged a resurgence in 2006, to mount a new offensive in the spring in the south of the country.
"There's no reason to sit back and let the Taliban regroup and try and threaten the progress that's been made here," Gates said.
He said the size of any U.S. troop increase varied according to different scenarios envisaged by commanders. He said he would make a recommendation to Bush after U.S. military chiefs had studied those ideas and come forward with proposals.
U.S. commanders say they have requested that a battalion of 1,200 soldiers, originally deployed for four-months, now stay until the end of 2007.
Last year was the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government in 2001 in response to the September 11 attacks. More than 4,000 people were killed in the violence.
Strain on Military
Marine General Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. military's joint chiefs of staff, said America would also discuss troop levels in Afghanistan with other NATO countries. The NATO force has not received all the troops promised by member states.
Pace said that sending more troops to Afghanistan would put an extra burden on the military. But if it helped produce a decisive victory, that could relieve strain in the long term.
"Clearly any kind of deployment of force is going to add short-term strain. The question is, though: what impact will that have?" he said, speaking alongside Gates.
For a short-term plus-up, you can have a success that will make it so you have ... less stress on the force for a longer period of time."
By far the biggest burden on the U.S. military is Iraq, where some 130,000 American troops are based. Bush last week ordered an increase to more than 150,000.
Gates aims to encourage support for the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on his visit to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states over the next few days, U.S. officials said. He arrived in Riyadh late on Wednesday afternoon.
"This government needs, I think, help from other governments in terms of its own influence and authority at home," he said
Last updated 21/01/2007