Gates cautions against buildup in Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday the Pentagon may be able to send thousands more combat troops to Afghanistan starting next spring, but cautioned against overdoing a military buildup in a nation 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?”

There are about 31,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and roughly an equal number of coalition troops.

Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates expressed disappointment at a persistent lack of coordination among the international military and humanitarian organizations trying to stabilize Afghanistan on a path to peace.

One key in Afghanistan, he said, is momentum not just on the military front but also in the economic and political arenas – a coordinated approach that Gates said is lacking.

“Right now, as far as I can tell, it's essentially everybody doing their own thing,” he said.

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 U.S. calls to contribute more troops. They have put more emphasis on economic development, humanitarian assistance and encouraging better Afghan governance.

President Bush announced this month that one Army combat brigade scheduled to go to Iraq would instead be sent to Afghanistan in January. Gates said 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 can't be committed to Afghanistan now without extending combat tours or changing troop deployment schedules, Gates said. When pressed by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., he said they likely could go in the spring and summer of 2009.