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US Defense Secretary in Afghanistan as Top Commander Calls for More Troops

As U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Kabul Tuesday, the top U.S. and NATO commander there said he needs well over 10,000 more troops, in addition to several thousand President Bush announced last week. The commander, Army General David McKiernan, also announced he has issued new orders, stressing the need to avoid civilian casualties, in the wake of several controversial U.S. air strikes that have killed dozens of Afghan civilians in recent weeks. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kabul.

General McKiernan told reporters at his headquarters here that he needs more troops, and not a temporary increase like the one that recently ended in Iraq. "I don't like to use the word 'surge' for Afghanistan because I think what we need are increased capabilities on a sustained basis," he said.

There are about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan - up by nearly 50 percent in recent years - and President Bush announced a further increase of several thousand last week.

But the general says he needs more combat power and support elements that could easily add up to an additional 15,000 troops, putting the total at more than 50,000. He says senior officials at the Pentagon have confirmed the need.

"There is a brigade combat team that the decision has been made to send here," said General McKiernan. "There are an additional three brigades, ground maneuver brigade combat teams that are validated requirements."

General McKiernan says it is not a question of whether he will get the troops, but when. And he says that depends on how quickly U.S. troop levels can be reduced in Iraq, which he called a political decision. He says violence in Afghanistan is up 30 percent, compared to this time last year.

The general also stressed that improved governance and more international investment are needed to defeat the Taliban and other insurgents here. And he said there is one additional element.

"We're not going to have the right outcome in Afghanistan without some solution to the militant sanctuaries in the tribal areas in Pakistan," said General McKiernan.

McKiernan said Pakistan has taken more action recently, but it is too soon to assess the results.

As the general spoke, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, arrived in Pakistan on the latest of several visits to work with leaders there on the border security issue.

At the Kabul news conference, General McKiernan declined to comment on the special investigation he requested of an air strike in western Afghanistan that Afghan and United Nations officials say killed about 90 civilians. He said the review, being handled by a headquarters in the United States, should be completed within a couple of weeks.

An initial U.S. investigation said only a few civilians were killed. But General McKiernan said in the wake of that and several other incidents, he has issued a revised order to re-emphasize and tighten procedures on air strikes and other operations in civilian areas.

"We have reviewed and continue to review our procedures for application of lethal force," he said. "And I've issued, just revised, a tactical directive that tries to be very measured in how we apply lethal force."

General McKiernan said procedures are already "very measured" and include an advance assessment of potential civilian casualties and confirmation of the identity of the target. But he says that in a conflict like this, it is not possible to avoid all civilian casualties, particularly when troops are in combat and quick decisions need to be made.

"This is unfortunately not something that you can be accurate with all the time," the general. "There are going to be cases where, in the nature of an insurgency, you're fighting an enemy that doesn't wear a uniform, that mixes in with the population, that fights largely from urban areas. There are times when there are going to be unintended consequences on the population."

He also said his forces are using smaller bombs, as U.S. air forces have been using in Iraq, to minimize what the military calls "collateral damage".

General McKiernan said the allied effort in Afghanistan is "winning" in different ways in different areas. But he acknowledged there are few parts of the country where the effort is succeeding in all key ways, which he defined as security, governance and economic development.

Admiral Mullen recently said allied forces are not winning in Afghanistan, although they could with the right strategy and resources. General McKiernan would not provide any details of a possible new strategy for Afghanistan. He said he thinks the current strategy is right, but the resources need to be increased.