U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says President Obama will make a decision on additional U.S. troop deployments to Afghanistan in the "next few days," before a strategy review is completed. But the secretary says the orders may not involve all the troops the U.S. commander in Afghanistan wants, at least not immediately.
Secretary Gates told a news conference the president has "several options in front of him," and if he wants to send even one more combat brigade to Afghanistan he will have to make the decision soon, before the conclusion of the strategic review, which could take two more months.
"I think that there is a realization that some decisions have to be made before the strategic review is completed, if only because if he does decide to send at least an additional brigade combat team, just one, the next one to go would need to be notified pretty quickly," he said.
A U.S. Army combat brigade is about 3,500 soldiers, but could require nearly as many support troops. Secretary Gates has said he wants to get at least some additional troops to Afghanistan by early summer, when fighting usually increases.
On Tuesday, the White House announced the formation of a high-level team to conduct an inter-agency review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the team will look not just at how many troops the United States should have in Afghanistan, but also try to determine "what is possible and what needs to happen in order to change the direction" in the country, where security and public support for the government have been deteriorating. Gibbs indicated the review will take about two months.
There have already been several such strategy reviews, including two by the U.S. military and one by the Bush White House.
Some analysts say it does not make sense to send more troops to Afghanistan before the president decides on his strategy. But Pentagon officials say any strategy will include improving security, and that will require more troops. Secretary Gates has endorsed the request by his commander in Afghanistan (General David McKiernan0 for about 30,000 more U.S. troops. But on Tuesday he indicated the strategy review might settle on a plan that would require fewer troops.
"I give great deference to the commander in the field as to what he needs, and it's my job try and satisfy those needs," he said. "If his mission changes then the number of troops or the capabilities that he would need would change, one way or the other, as well. So I think we just have to wait until the conclusion of the strategic review."
Secretary Gates would not say what mission or strategy would require fewer troops, saying that will be for the review to figure out. But he did say he advocates an approach that involves more engagement with local and provincial governments, although not to the exclusion of the central government. On Monday, President Obama called the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai "detached" from what is going on in the country.
About 5,000 additional U.S. troops have already arrived in Afghanistan, bringing the total to 37,000, but no further deployments have yet been approved. Secretary Gates defended what some officials say is a delay in the deployment orders, saying this would be President Obama's first such decision, and it makes sense for him to follow a careful process before making it.