The Pentagon plans to speed up its "surge" of troops into Afghanistan, with the first of an additional 20,000 troops departing for Afghanistan next month. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Robert Piper / Marine Corps)
Kandahar, Afghanistan - Defense secretary Robert M. Gates said here on Thursday that the Pentagon, which plans to send 20,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, was trying to get thousands of the additional combat forces into the country as soon as next spring, a sign of the seriousness of the threat facing the United States against the Taliban.
The soldiers were requested by Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan. The first of them, about 3,500 to 4,000 troops from the Third Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y., are scheduled to arrive next month.
Mr. Gates said he hoped to deploy an additional two combat brigades in Afghanistan by the spring as part of an effort to combat growing violence and chaos in the country. He declined to name the specific units. Pentagon officials have said it would take 12 to 18 months overall to get all 20,000 American troops to Afghanistan.
Both Mr. Gates and General McKiernan said on Thursday that there would be a "sustained commitment" of American troops in Afghanistan for the next three to four years, although they declined to put a number on that commitment.
The additional 20,000 troops will increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan to about 58,000 from the current level of 34,000. Neither Mr. Gates nor General McKiernan gave any indication that that number was likely to be reduced soon, meaning American force levels could remain that high in Afghanistan through much of the first term of President-elect Barack Obama.
Mr. Gates, who is stay on as Mr. Obama's Defense Secretary, arrived here early Thursday on an unannounced trip to a regional military base for international forces in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the ideological centre of gravity for the Taliban.
Earlier, Mr. Gates told reporters on his plane en route to Kandahar, that the planned drawdown of some troops from Iraq in January had enabled the military to begin sending additional forces to Afghanistan.
But while he outlined the United States' commitment, he was critical of NATO for allowing the United States to share a disproportionate share of the burden of the war in Afghanistan.
"NATO is a military alliance, not a talk shop," Mr. Gates told reporters.
Mr. Obama vowed repeatedly during the campaign to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, which he declared the central front in the war against terrorism. His call for more troops here was consistent with the views of top commanders, although Mr. Gates made clear that the new administration's military policy in Afghanistan is far from settled.
"But I have not heard anybody talking about forces beyond those that General McKiernan has already requested," said Mr. Gates, who has been in recent conversations with Mr. Obama and in meetings with the president-elect's transition team. "And I think that's a discussion that the new administration will have as we look to the future."
Mr. Gates said that his view would be to accelerate the growth of the Afghan army, particularly as the United States increases its military presence in the country.
"The history of foreign military forces in Afghanistan, when they have been regarded by the Afghan people as there for their own interests, and as occupiers, has not been a happy one," Mr. Gates said. "And the Soviets couldn't win in Afghanistan with 120,000 troops. And they clearly didn't care about civilian casualties. So I just think we have to think about the longer term in this. I think we're going to be in this struggle for quite a long time, and I think we have to make sure we've got some of the basics right."
Mr. Gates said he had talked on the telephone with Mr. Obama since they first met in Washington on Nov. 10 and that the conversations since then have largely focused on personnel, including who will assume the top jobs under Mr. Gates at the Pentagon.
"It's a dialogue," he said. "I do not have specific candidates for specific jobs, and so they're providing me with names and I'm giving them feedback." Mr. Gates added that he would interview all prospects for senior-level positions and make recommendations to Mr. Obama. "I guess the way I would leave it is I believe I have substantial influence over those decisions, but if the president of the United States wants to appoint somebody to a job, nobody in the executive branch has a veto," Mr. Gates said.
Mr. Gates also said there had been "some occasional awkwardness" as he makes the transition from one commander-in-chief to another. For example, he said, he has sometimes had to chose between attending what is known as a "principals"' meeting at the White House - a session with the secretaries of State, Treasury and other Cabinet members, without the president - or a session with Mr. Obama's transition team.
"I haven't missed any meetings with the president, let me put it that way," Mr. Gates said. "But let's just say that if I'm faced with a choice between attending a principals' meeting on an issue that I think is not particularly hot and a meeting with the transition folks, I'll opt for the latter."
Before arriving in Kandahar, Mr. Gates made a brief stop at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, the main base for American air transport into Afghanistan. In remarks to American troops there, Mr. Gates said that the scope and size of their mission would change in the months to come.
"The final decision will be made by the next president, but a consensus has emerged that more troops are needed," Mr. Gates said, cautioning that "success in Afghanistan will not come easily or quickly."
In response to a question, Mr. Gates also said that because the U.S. was at war in two countries, he anticipated "continued support for a pretty robust defense budget" in the next administration.
"I may be whistling past the graveyard here but I think that we're not likely to see significant cuts," he said, adding to applause that "the defense budget at the end of the day is a pretty impressive stimulus for the economy."