Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pentagon Plans Afghanistan Troop Surge

Pentagon plans Afghanistan troop surge

By Demetri Sevastopulo in Cornwallis, Canada
Financial Times
November 22 2008 00:14

The Pentagon hopes to send surge troops into Afghanistan before the elections next fall to improve security and facilitate voter registration, Robert Gates, US defence secretary, said on Friday.

”We would like to be able to get some of those additional brigade combat teams into Afghanistan before the elections so that they can make a contribution to greater security,” said Mr Gates.

The Pentagon is sending one combat brigade team – roughly 3,500 – to Afghanistan in January to help quell the rising violence. General David McKiernan, the US general who commands NATO forces, has requested another three combat brigades, an aviation combat brigade, and support troops.

Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary, said the total number of troops would be ”well north of 20,000”. The Pentagon is still working out the timing for the deployments, which is partly contingent on how quickly the US withdraws forces from Iraq. Mr Morrell said the aim was to send the troops within the next 12 to 18 months.

Speaking during a meeting of defence ministers from countries with troops fighting in southern Afghanistan – including Denmark, Romania, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Britain and Estonia – Mr Gates expressed optimism that the Afghan elections, which are considered key to future stability, would go ahead successfully next year.

Mr Gates said that while there were ”significant challenges…the security situation will be under enough control to allow the election to take place.” He also rejected suggestions that Afghanistan was reeling back into disaster.

”The Taliban do not hold any land. Anytime any of our forces come in contact with the Taliban, [the Taliban] lose. So the notion that things are out of control in Afghanistan, or that we are sliding towards a disaster, is far too pessimistic.”

President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to pay more attention to Afghanistan, including sending more troops. European countries – and particularly those who are contributing few troops – expect Mr Obama will ask them to send more forces to the country.

Asked at a joint press conference whether the countries operating in the south would also be prepared to send more troops if asked by Mr Obama, Peter MacKay, the Canadian defence minister, said Mr Obama should first approach the countries that were not carrying so much of a burden.

”The reality is there are other NATO doors that President-elect Obama should be knocking on first,” said Mr MacKay. ”I think clearly, the regional-command south eight countries have been carrying what I would describe as a disproportionate share of the load.”

”I suspect, having said that, that there is an enormous amount of good will that has been engendered by President-elect Obama, that he might be willing to spend for a cause that he clearly believes in.”

The US wants NATO allies, and particularly countries that are not fighting in Afghanistan, to help pay for a plan to expand the Afghan national army to 134,000 soldiers. Mr Gates said there was a need to ”accelerate the growth of the Afghan army”.

Asked whether there was a danger that European countries would be less prepared to pay for the expansion because of pressures from the global financial and economic crisis, Mr Gates said, ”I think they will have to weigh the consequences of not going it.”

Mr Gates said there was a significant cost difference between training and equipping an Afghan soldier compared with coalition forces.

”They may be a period when you have got to do both. You have got to have your own forces there, but long-term you’re interests in getting out are served by making a contribution towards expanding the Afghan army.”

Mr Gates declined to comment on whether he would stay as defence secretary in the Obama administration. The Financial Times reported earlier this week that Mr Gates and Mr Obama were negotiating the terms for him to remain in the position.

Asked whether they had bade farewell to Mr Gates, or whether they expected to continue working with him as defence secretary in the future, Mr MacKay praised Mr Gates, but compared expectations about his future to waking up on Christmas morning.

”When you wake up on Christmas day, and you are opening your presents under the tree, whatever the outcome of an election in nor country it is exactly what you wanted,” he replied to laughter.

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