Washington (AFP) Aug 13, 2009
Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday left open the possibility of sending more US troops to Afghanistan but warned of stretched military resources and the risk of a possible backlash.
Gates said he and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, had told the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley 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 told a news conference.
But with about 132,000 troops currently 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, as well," he said.
Gates also repeated his concerns about too big of a US military "footprint," saying for the moment Afghans see the 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.
The defense secretary's comments come amid intense speculation that the commander in Afghanistan 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 and the number of US forces is set to reach 68,000 before the end of the year.
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."
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.
Gates said he could not predict how long US troops would have to stay in Afghanistan, saying there were too many uncertainties.
But he 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 also looking closely at how to combat improvised explosives, which were the main cause of casualties among NATO-led troops.
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