President Barack Obama is days away from approving a new Afghanistan troop buildup, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday, as the new administration confronts a worsening war and the prospect of fiercer fighting in the spring.
Obama is likely to send fresh forces to the Afghan battle even before concluding a wide review of U.S. strategy and goals there, in part because time is short to have new units in place for the expected increase in fighting that comes with warmer weather.
"The president will have several options in front of him," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference, adding that he expects a decision "in the course of the next few days."
Gates suggested, as have other officials, that the ground commander in Afghanistan would eventually get all the forces he has asked for, but no more. Lt. Gen. David McKiernan wants more fighting forces and support troops such as helicopter crews to push back against the Taliban in Afghanistan's increasingly dangerous south and eastern regions.
"If the president agreed to ultimately, to satisfy the standing requests from Gen. McKiernan, I would be deeply skeptical about further troop deployments beyond that. I worry a lot about the size of the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan," he said.
An opponent of the "surge" of U.S. forces that is now credited with turning around the Iraq war, Obama has taken a cautious approach to the addition of forces in Afghanistan. He is expected to initially approve only part of a military request for as many as 30,000 forces this year, while military and civilian advisers revamp U.S. war goals.
"This is the first time that this president has been asked to deploy large numbers of troops overseas, and it seems to me a thoughtful and deliberative approach to that decision is entirely appropriate," Gates said.
McKiernan asked for the additional troops months ago, long before Obama became president. Although Obama had pledged to add forces in Afghanistan while shutting down the Iraq war, his new administration has sought firmer control over the pace and scope of any new deployments.
Obama spoke on Monday about the urgent need to seek out al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in their havens across the Pakistan border. His administration has signaled that it will adopt an essentially preventive Afghan strategy aimed at keeping terrorists from harming the U.S. and its allies.
Although the focus is smaller, it is expected to require larger numbers of U.S. forces at the outset.
'Time is moving on'
Gates' press conference was dominated by questions about a war that military leaders have said the United States is not winning. Gates is the only member of Republican former President George W. Bush invited to remain on the job, but he has embraced a shift away from Bush's grander vision for Afghanistan.
In Ottawa, Canada, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen cited climbing violence and the August elections in Afghanistan in nudging the Obama administration to send additional troops "as soon as absolutely possible."
"Those of us who have been working through the request recognize that the sooner, the better with respect to this," Mullen said at a press conference with Canada's Chief of Defense Staff, Gen. Walter Natynczyk.
"Time is moving on, and so in terms of being able to respond to the needs that we have on the ground and the commander on the ground, I'm hopeful we can get them there as soon as absolutely possible," Mullen said.
Also Tuesday, the White House said it has commissioned another review of U.S. policies in the region. Following three military and civilian studies that all point to lowered expectations in Afghanistan, this one is due before a NATO summit in early April.
Not enough troops
NATO nations have about 55,000 troops in Afghanistan, which Gates and other U.S. officials have said is not enough. The U.S. has about 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, less than a third the total in Iraq.
The latest U.S. review, under direction of a former CIA agent, will look broadly at U.S. activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and will involve the newly named U.S. envoy to the region, ex-diplomat Richard Holbrooke.
U.S. military operations are almost entirely confined to Afghanistan. The CIA and U.S. special forces conduct anti-terror strikes and raids in Pakistan, where al-Qaida and other militants seek refuge and resupply for the fighting across the rugged border in Afghanistan.
Civilian deaths from both kinds of operations have enraged both Pakistanis and Afghans, and undermined U.S.-backed governments in both nations.
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