By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that he supports a fresh troop buildup in Afghanistan -- officially estimated at more than 20,000 U.S. troops in the next 12 to 18 months -- to fight a growing insurgency and to safeguard the 2009 Afghan elections. But he stressed that in the long run the conflict should be "Afghanistan's war."
"The violence is up," Gates said. "It's clear there is a need for more [troops] to try to deal with this increased security problem," he told reporters traveling with him to a meeting of defense leaders in Canada.
Gates said he intends to meet the requests of top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan for an increase of four more combat brigades and an aviation brigade, as well as thousands of support troops -- a total reinforcement of "well north of 20,000" in the coming year and a half, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
The troops would deploy primarily to eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border, where the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division is headed in January, as well as to southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency is based.
"It's important that we have a surge of forces before the election. And my speculation would be that people will want to focus that surge in areas like RC [Regional Command] South to ensure that people can register and vote," Gates said at a news conference in Cornwallis, Canada, where he attended a two-day meeting with defense ministers from Canada, Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, Estonia and other countries that have a total of about 18,000 troops in southern Afghanistan.
Gates said that securing Afghan elections "may be the most important objective for us in 2009" and called the prospects for a successful vote good. "The notion that things are out of control in Afghanistan or that we're sliding toward a disaster, I think, is far too pessimistic," he said.
In south Afghanistan, additional U.S. combat units are also needed to move throughout the region and prevent insurgents from exploiting the boundaries between British, Canadian and other allied forces that now concentrate their operations in different provinces, officials said. "The enemy we are dealing with in Afghanistan does not respect . . . boundaries," said a senior defense official traveling with Gates, pointing to the movement of fighters and the trafficking of weapons and drugs across provincial lines.
"Clearly, one of the purposes behind additional U.S. forces is to give the commanders the maneuverable capability to be able to address problems across the entire RC South," Gates said.
President-elect Barack Obama has also called for additional combat brigades for Afghanistan, where there are currently about 32,000 U.S. troops and 35,000 non-U.S. NATO or other allied troops. Still, Gates and others have indicated that they do not expect large numbers of reinforcements from NATO, which leads the mission in Afghanistan. This is particularly true of countries fighting in the south, such as Britain and Canada, which say their forces are stretched too thin.
"The reality is there are other NATO doors that President-elect Obama should be knocking on first" to ask for more troops, Peter MacKay, Canada's defense minister, said during the news conference yesterday. "I think, clearly, the RC South -- eight countries have been carrying what I would describe as a disproportionate share of the load," he said.
In the long run, Gates stressed, a primary goal must be to accelerate the growth and capabilities of Afghan national security forces. That will require an international investment of billions for years, he said, because the Kabul government, with an annual budget of about $700 million, "will never be able to sustain this force."
Empowering Afghans to secure and govern their own country is expected to be a main theme of a Bush administration review of Afghanistan strategy that is expected to be released soon. Gates was briefed on a draft of the review in recent days.
"One general theme that I am pushing very hard . . . is we need to remember this is Afghanistan's war against a threat to a freely elected Afghan government, and we're there to help them take on that threat," Gates told reporters on his aircraft after the meeting.
"This isn't our war, necessarily," he said.