MUSCAT, Oman - The United States intends to send many more combat forces to Afghanistan next year, regardless of whether troop levels in Iraq are cut further this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday.
It is the first time the Bush administration has made such a commitment for 2009.
Gates told reporters while flying to this Persian Gulf nation from a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, that President Bush had made the pledge to other allied leaders at the summit on Thursday.
Bush was not specific about the number of additional troops that would go to Afghanistan in 2009, Gates said. The United States now has about 31,000 troops there - including 17,000 that are part of the NATO-led force - and has been pressing the allies to contribute more.
The US military total in Afghanistan also includes about 14,000 troops in a US-led contingent in the eastern part of the country that helps train the Afghan Army and conducts counter-insurgency missions.
Until now, the heavy commitment of US forces in Iraq has been a constraint on the ability to increase US troop levels in Afghanistan. But Gates said he did not believe that would be the case in 2009.
The Bush administration plans to announce next week that US soldiers' combat tours will be reduced from 15 months to 12 months in Iraq and Afghanistan beginning later this summer.
A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that plans are to deploy soldiers for 12 months, then give them 12 months rest time at home. Exactly which units would be affected is not yet clear.
Gates acknowledged yesterday that the decision on combat tours would impose limits on what the military can do in the future.
If tour lengths are shortened by three months, an expansion of US forces in Afghanistan could make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Army to maintain troop rotations for both wars in 2009 and beyond unless it is able to substantially cut forces in Iraq.
The United States currently has about 158,000 troops in Iraq. But that number is expected to dip to about 140,000 after July, when the last of the additional forces ordered to Baghdad last year return home.
Such an expansion could make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Army to maintain troop rotations for both wars in 2009 and beyond if it is unable to substantially cut forces in Iraq in the near term, while tour lengths are shortened by three months.
Regarding the pledge to send more combat troops to Afghanistan in 2009, Gates said he advised Bush to make the statement to allied leaders in Bucharest even though the movement of the unspecified additional troops would ultimately be a decision for the next president.
"The question arises, how can we say that about 2009?" Gates said. "All I would say is, I believe . . . this is one area where there is very broad bipartisan support in the United States for being successful" in Afghanistan, where by many accounts progress against the Taliban resistance has stalled.
Gates said he believed it was too early to decide how many additional combat forces the United States should send. He said it would depend on several things, including the extent of US and NATO success on the battlefield this year, as well as the impact of a new senior US commander taking over in coming months.
General David McKiernan is due to replace General Dan McNeill this spring.
McNeill has said he believes he needs another three brigades - two for combat and one for training. That translates to roughly 7,500 to 10,000 additional troops. The Bush administration has no realistic hope of getting the NATO allies to send such large numbers.
McKiernan told Congress on Thursday that he needs additional combat and aviation forces, intelligence and surveillance capabilities, and training and mentoring teams.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week there are not enough forces in Afghanistan to hold on to any security gains.