Afghan conflict's needs called urgent
US commander seeks troops, arms 'quickly'
WASHINGTON - The United States and its allies should rush more troops "as quickly as possible" to Afghanistan, the top American commander in that country said yesterday, warning that the fighting could worsen before it get better.
Trying to meet General David McKiernan's urgent need for weapons and equipment, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked the military for additional surveillance drones and armored vehicles right now for Afghanistan, The Associated Press has learned. It is a short-term solution to a persistent shortfall of military assets in a seven-year war often overshadowed by the larger US-led conflict in Iraq.
After an Oval Office briefing from McKiernan, President Bush said Afghanistan is "a situation where there's been progress and there are difficulties."
The United States is in a tough fight against determined killers, Bush said. He cited progress in health care, education and transportation, and said McKiernan relayed "what he's going to need to make sure that we continue helping this young democracy succeed."
McKiernan is in Washington this week meeting with top leaders and laying out his military requirements for a war that is just beginning to take on new prominence in the waning months of the Bush administration. US troops are being killed there in increasing numbers.
A senior defense official said Gates asked aides to find both unmanned surveillance drones and mine-resistant vehicles to divert to Afghanistan in the coming months until a more coordinated effort early next year. One focus is protecting the strategic main highway.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the effort has not yet been made public, said the military is looking to nearly double the 24-hour aerial surveillance patrols, from 27 now to about 55.
A new Pentagon task force is supposed to speed weapons and equipment to Afghanistan beginning early next year.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced orders to deploy about 26,000 troops to Iraq beginning next summer, evidence of the struggle to shift troops and weapons. The deployments would allow the United States to keep troop levels largely steady in Iraq through much of next year. Military leaders have made it clear they cannot shift more troops to Afghanistan until they can further cut force levels in Iraq.
Bush announced this month that the United States will pull about 8,000 US troops from Iraq by February, with about half leaving before the end of 2008. Pentagon officials say more reductions could be made by summer, possibly freeing up units to go to Afghanistan.
"The additional military capabilities that have been asked for are needed as quickly as possible," McKiernan said. He said he is hoping to get units that will be able to both fight the insurgents and serve as trainers for the Afghan Army and police.
About 33,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan - 20,000 fighting insurgents and training the Afghan security forces, and 13,000 with the NATO-led coalition.
McKiernan's immediate challenge is to coordinate a winter offensive by coalition forces. Commanders do not want to sit idle and give Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents that time to rebuild their forces.