U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen (file photo)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen (file photo)

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the first of the additional forces ordered to Afghanistan by President Barack Obama will arrive before the end of this month.  Gates spoke, along with other senior officials, at a hearing of the U.S. Senate committee that oversees the defense department. 

One aspect of the president's plan that surprised some analysts is the fast pace planned for the deployment of 30,000 additional U.S. troops.  They are all expected to be in Afghanistan by August. 

At Wednesday's hearing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the move an "extended surge of 18 to 24 months," with the first troops arriving within two to three weeks.

"With all the resources already committed to this campaign - plus those the president has just announced - I believe the pieces are being put in place to make real and measurable progress in Afghanistan over the next 18 to 24 months," he said.

Gates said the president's new plan offers what he called the best possibility to "decisively change the momentum in Afghanistan, and fundamentally alter the strategic equation in Pakistan and Central Asia."  He said the U.S. forces will be deployed mainly in Eastern and Southern Afghanistan, and he called on other coalition countries to surge forces into the North and West. 

The secretary also indicated U.S. forces will enlist the aid of some local leaders and their forces to help maintain order after insurgent forces are cleared out, much as they did with considerable success in Iraq.

Some analysts have been questioning whether the U.S. military will be satisfied with President Obama's decision, because the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, had asked for more troops than the president decided to send.  But at Wednesday's hearing, the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, offered a strong endorsement of the president's plan.

"His is a more balanced, more flexible, and more achievable strategy than we have had in the past, one based on pragmatism and real possibilities.  And speaking for the 2.2-million men and women who must execute it - and who, with their families, have borne the brunt of the stress and the strain of eight years of constant combat - I support his decision and appreciate his leadership," said Admiral Mullen.

Admiral Mullen said military leaders had significant input into the long strategy review, and that the revised approach will provide them with the forces they need and "better guidance" on how to use them.  Specifically, he said the forces will have "more limited objectives," focusing on reversing Taliban gains, securing populated areas and training Afghan forces to take over the job.

Gates and Mullen both said they believe it will be possible to begin the transition to Afghan security control by July of 2011, as President Obama pledged in his speech.

But they acknowledged it will not be easy.  Admiral Mullen said the Taliban has significantly increased its capability during the past year, including a 60 percent increase in attacks, and now dominates 11 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.  Secretary Gates said U.S. and NATO forces must degrade the Taliban's military capability to the point that increasingly competent Afghan government forces can deal with it.

Both men also argued the Taliban and al-Qaida work together in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that if they succeed they would pose a serious risk to the region and the world.