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Gates: US Troop Levels in Afghanistan Will Rise Sharply

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says Afghanistan is the top military priority for the new administration of President Barack Obama that will require a further increase in U.S. troop levels this year and a stronger commitment by allied countries.

But Secretary Gates also told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that he would be "deeply skeptical" of any proposal to expand America's troop presence beyond the number already requested by the commander, which could bring the total to about 60,000.

Gates says US forces will leave Iraq

Secretary Gates left no doubt that as President Obama pushes for the fastest possible prudent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, he is also committed to increasing the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, where Taliban forces and other insurgents have gained strength in recent years.

"There is little doubt that our greatest military challenge right now is Afghanistan. As you know, the United States has focused more on Central Asia in recent months. President Obama has made it clear that the Afghanistan theater [of operations] should be our top overseas military priority," he said.

General asks for additional combat brigades

The U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Army General David McKiernan, has asked for four additional U.S. ground combat brigades, one of which has just arrived, plus an air combat unit and thousands of support troops. That would nearly double last year's U.S. troop level of about 32,000.

Secretary Gates gave the Senate committee that oversees the U.S. military his view of the request.

"I'm willing to support that. I think it's necessary," he added. "But I would be very skeptical of any additional force levels, American force levels, beyond what General McKiernan has already asked for."

Gates said the additional forces should all be deployed this year. He added that the Afghan Army needs to be expanded to 134,000 troops, as planned, that the Afghan police force needs to improve its performance and that the multi-national security effort in Afghanistan must make a key change to its operations.

"Above all, there must be an Afghan face on this war," said Gates. "The Afghan people must believe this is their war and we are there to help them because if they think we are there for our own purposes, then we will go the way of every other foreign army that has been in Afghanistan."

Secretary Gates said putting Afghan forces in the lead must be at the "absolute forefront" of future allied strategy in Afghanistan.

He again committed to greater efforts to avoid Afghan casualties from U.S. air strikes, saying such deaths do "enormous harm" to the U.S. effort.

The secretary called for more NATO troops with fewer restrictions on how they can be used, and for better coordination of military and civilian efforts.

"As in Iraq, there is no purely military solution in Afghanistan. But it is also clear that we have not had enough troops to provide a baseline level of security in some of the most dangerous areas - a vacuum that has increasingly been filled by the Taliban," continued Gates.

Gates defends US airstrikes

Gates also told lawmakers that there must be better security along the Pakistan border to prevent insurgents from seeking safe haven there. And he defended U.S. air strikes on insurgent targets inside Pakistan.

"Both [former] President Bush and President Obama have made clear that we will go after al-Qaida wherever al-Qaida is, and we will continue to pursue that," he said.

Secretary Gates said Iran's supply of weapons to Afghan insurgents has increased recently, but that it is still at a low level. He said Iran is trying to develop a good relationship with Afghanistan, while also inflicting as much damage as possible on U.S. and allied forces.

The secretary said the war in Afghanistan will be "a long and difficult fight". But he said with realistic, short-term goals the United States and its allies can help restore order, prevent the country from being a base for terrorists, reduce corruption, fight the narcotics trade and help Afghans begin to develop their economy.

He said it will take time, patience and a lot more money from the international community, noting that the cost of maintaining the Afghan Army alone is three times the Afghan government's annual income.