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Gates cites caveats to possible US buildup in Afghanistan

US to train Georgian troops for Afghan mission: Pentagon
The US military on Friday said it will launch a training mission in Georgia to help a battalion prepare for deployment to Afghanistan, a move that risks aggravating relations with Russia. A team of US Marines will leave in the next few days to begin training a 750-strong infantry battalion that heads to Afghanistan in 2010, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters. The training, which formally starts next month, will be designed "to get them ready for their spring 2010 deployment and to ensure they're able to operate alongside ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) partners," said Whitman. The NATO-led ISAF coalition comprises more than 100,000 troops, with about 62,000 forces from the United States. The number of Marines in the training contingent will fluctuate but will number as many as 60-70 instructors, Whitman said. The first influx of Marines will arrive in Georgia beginning on August 15th, said State Department spokesman PJ Crowley. The training program "will commence on September 1st to prepare that Georgian battalion... for service in Afghanistan," said Crowley. A similar US training effort for troops headed to Iraq was suspended last year when Georgia waged a brief war with Russian forces over South Ossetia. About 2,000 Georgian troops were deployed in Iraq from August 2003 but were rushed back in a conflict that saw Russia crush the ex-Soviet state's US-backed military. Whitman said the training mission was solely focused on the Afghan mission but Moscow has accused Washington of meddling in the region and rearming Georgia. Russia views expanding NATO influence in ex-Soviet states near Russian borders as a major security threat. Moscow and Western governments are in intensifying competition for influence in Georgia due to its vital location astride a geographical corridor that could be used to transport energy supplies from Central Asia directly to Western markets.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Aug 14, 2009
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has left open the possibility of sending more forces to Afghanistan but warned of stretched military resources.

With about 132,000 troops in Iraq, Gates said there were constraints as to how many extra troops could be sent to Afghanistan at least until after Iraq's elections in January.

"I would say also that the availability of forces is still a challenge," he told a news conference on Thursday.

Referring to plans to reduce US troops in Iraq over the next year, Gates said that "until the more accelerated drawdown in Iraq begins after the elections there ... it will be a challenge for us."

The military also was limited by efforts to increase the time soldiers spend back at home between combat tours, he said.

The defense secretary's comments come amid intense speculation that the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is preparing to make a case for more troops in the fight against the Taliban and allied insurgents.

President Barack Obama already ordered an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan ahead of the country's August 20 elections and the number of US forces is set to reach 68,000 before the end of the year.

There are also some 30,000 international troops under NATO command in Afghanistan.

Asked why US forces were not sent in earlier to southern Afghanistan, where thousands of Marines have deployed over the summer, Gates said: "The forces weren't available to send in until fairly recently. We got them in there as fast as we could."

Gates said he and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, had told McChrystal that "we want him to ask for what he thinks he needs."

"And I think you have to allow your commanders that freedom," he said.

But he repeated his concerns about too big of a US military "footprint," saying it was important not to alienate Afghans who currently view the NATO-led coalition as "their partner."

"I just worry that we don't know what the size of the military presence might be that would begin to change that.

"And I think we need to move with considerable care in that respect and in close consultation with both our allies, but especially with the Afghans and the Afghan government," Gates said.

McChrystal, who is drafting an assessment of the Afghan war effort that is due to be submitted by early September, is under pressure to seize the initiative from the Islamist insurgents amid anxiety in Congress about an open-ended US mission.

Obama has sought to shift the focus to the Afghan mission but has had to balance competing demands from the commander in Iraq, amid warnings the situation there remains fragile.

Describing a "mixed picture" in Afghanistan, Gates said he could not predict how long US troops would have to stay, saying there were too many uncertainties.

"In some parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban have clearly established a presence," he said.

But Gates said the insurgents could be defeated "in a few years" while economic and civilian aid efforts represented a "decades-long enterprise."

General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the same press conference that the military was looking closely at how to combat improvised explosives, which were the main cause of casualties among NATO-led troops.

"That's one area that we're going to have to focus in on," Cartwright said. Countering the explosives might require a change in tactics or "additional resources," he said. "We're going to have to take a serious look at that."

Civilian analysts who advised McChrystal last month on his assessment have called for moving troops out of fortified bases and having them mingle more with the local population in a bid to win the trust of Afghans.

McChrystal is also reportedly considering focusing more on securing cities and towns instead of devoting resources to manhunts for Taliban or Al-Qaeda militants.

Gates acknowledged that McChrystal was considering shifting troops away from remote areas to population centers.

"I suspect that may be something that's addressed in the general's assessment," he said.

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ACLU seeks information on Baghram airbase
Washington (AFP) Aug 13, 2009
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Thursday voiced concern over the Pentagon and CIA's refusal to provide information on detainees at Baghram airbase, sometimes called the Afghan Guantanamo. The ACLU said in a statement it was seeking the names and nationalities of about 600 current detainees at Baghram, just north of Kabul. Additionally, the civil rights organization said it ... read more

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