Gates Wants to Send More U.S. Troops to Afghanistan, but How Many?

Commanders on the ground are anxious for more U.S. soldiers, but there are competing demands in Iraq.

By + More

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN—On what was originally planned as his farewell tour, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave some indication en route to Afghanistan this week of how difficult he believes it will be to come up with the right balance of troops in the war-torn country.

Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has been vocal about his desire to nearly double the number of U.S. troops on the ground, from 32,000 to somewhere between 55,000 and 60,000. McKiernan and others have been worried that current troop levels might not be not sufficient to defeat a multipronged insurgency.

As he headed to Kandahar to meet with McKiernan, Gates told reporters that the Pentagon was "going to try and get" two additional brigade combat teams, or some 7,000 to 10,000 troops, to Afghanistan "by summertime." Plans for additional brigades, he said, are yet to be determined.

These comments come on the heels of remarks by Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East and Central Asia, that he had "already made recommendations" to nearly double the number of U.S. forces currently in Afghanistan.

"The consensus has emerged that more troops are needed to provide security" there, Gates said during a town hall meeting with troops Thursday.

But he sounded a repeated note of caution about what has been widely called a "surge" for Afghanistan. In Iraq, there is a "considerable interest," he noted, in keeping "as much of our strength there as we can" through the provincial elections, scheduled to take place throughout Iraq early next year. The Pentagon is still figuring out how it will adjust troop deployments on the heels of the newly signed Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, he added, which requires U.S. forces to be out of all populated areas by June.

Gates also cautioned against an overreliance on foreign troops in Afghanistan, a country where the history of outside military forces, he added, often has "not been a happy one." He noted that the Soviets "couldn't win in Afghanistan with 120,000 troops, and they clearly didn't care about civilian casualties." Gates said that he would "like to put a lot more stress" on accelerating the growth of the Afghan Army and putting the Afghans "out front." It is "their country, their fight, their future."

Getting the basics right is key, Gates added, and there is one point in particular with which the Pentagon continues to grapple: "Figuring out how many foreign troops is too many in terms of being successful, and I think that still is an unanswered question—and may well be for some period of time."