US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Tuesday the Pentagon may be able to send thousands more combat troops to Afghanistan starting next spring, but he also pointedly cautioned against overdoing a military buildup in a country offended by the presence of foreign forces.
“I think we need to think about how heavy a military footprint the United States ought to have in Afghanistan,” Gates said. “Are we better off channeling resources into building and expanding the size of the Afghan national army as quickly as possible, as opposed to a much larger Western footprint in a country that has never been notoriously hospitable to foreigners?”
About 31,000 US troops are in Afghanistan and roughly an equal number of coalition troops.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates also expressed disappointment at a persistent lack of coordination among the various international military and humanitarian organizations that are attempting to stabilize Afghanistan and put it on a path to peace.
One of the keys in Afghanistan, he said, is building momentum not just on the military front but also in the economic and political arenas, a coordinated approach that Gates said is sorely lacking.
“Right now, as far as I can tell, it’s essentially everybody doing their own thing,” he lamented.
His assessment explains in part why the Bush administration is undertaking a broad review of its strategy in Afghanistan, not just the military approach but also the economic and humanitarian linkages. Most telling was his allusion to the risk of putting too much emphasis on the role of military power.
Many members of NATO, whose International Security Assistance Force is the overall military command in Afghanistan, have resisted US requests for more troops. They have put more emphasis on economic development, humanitarian assistance and encouraging better Afghan governance.
US President George W. Bush announced this month that one Army combat brigade that had been scheduled to go to Iraq would instead be sent to Afghanistan in January. Gates said that as many as three more combat brigades could be available to go beginning next spring, answering repeated calls from commanders.
Because of the large numbers of troops in Iraq, more forces cannot be committed to Afghanistan now without extending combat tours or changing troop deployment schedules, Gates said. When pressed by Democratic Senator Carl Levin, Gates said they probably could go in the spring and summer of next year.
Levin objected to a statement in Gates’ prepared testimony that said it now may be “possible” to do militarily what must be done in Afghanistan, which has been a secondary priority to the Iraq war for years.