The Pentagon has confirmed reports that it will send a helicopter unit to Afghanistan early next year to support thousands of additional ground troops it plans to deploy to join NATO's force in the country.
Officials say the combat aviation brigade from the U.S. Army will deploy between April and June with 2,800 troops and 89 helicopters. The aircraft will be capable of transport, reconnaissance and medical evacuation missions, and 18 will be assault helicopters.
First troops scheduled for January
The aviation unit will support as many as four additional ground combat brigades the United States plans to send to Afghanistan, with the first preparing to go in January. The U.S. and NATO commander there, General David McKiernan, says he needs the troops to fight a growing Taliban insurgency and provide greater security, to facilitate construction and development efforts.
The four ground brigades could number as many as 20,000 troops, and on Saturday the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said adding the aviation unit and other support troops the total could reach 30,000, which would nearly double the U.S. troop commitment to Afghanistan. On Monday, VOA learned officials expect the final total to be more like 25,000 additional troops, and that some might not make it to Afghanistan until 2010.
Obama will make final decision on Afghanistan troop deployments
Of course, the final decisions about future deployments will be made by President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office January 20. His decisions will be based, in part, on three reviews of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which are now in progress, one at the White House and two by the military. But Admiral Mullen has said he does not expect any major change in strategy.
The admiral and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will stay in office after the presidential transition. And although he generally supports the plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Secretary Gates has expressed concern about potentially sending too many troops, a move he believes could alienate many Afghans.
Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman says planners are considering that concern as they make their recommendations.
"It is wanting to ensure that the forces that you put in there are able to accomplish the mission that they are assigned without becoming or being perceived by the Afghan people or the Afghan government as an occupation force. So there is a balance one has to be cognizant of as you are evaluating these things," he said.
Whitman says the number of troops is only one factor in the policy reviews, along with efforts to improve governance, construction, law enforcement and economic growth, and to fight corruption and drug trafficking, among other issues.
Troop increase will depend on Iraq reductions
Senior American military officers say their ability to provide the kind of sustained troop increase General McKiernan wants in Afghanistan depends on expected troop reductions in Iraq.
President-elect Obama says he wants all U.S. combat units out of Iraq by mid-2010. But he has also said he will listen to the views of commanders, who are concerned that withdrawing troops from Iraq too rapidly could jeopardize security gains made during the past year. They are particularly concerned about security during Iraqi local and national elections, scheduled for next year.
Under the new U.S.-Iraq agreement, all U.S. troops are to be out of the country by the end of 2011. Secretary Gates says the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal will be the key to leaving a stable Iraq behind, rather than a chaotic one. And President-elect Obama has said he wants to be as careful about getting U.S. troops out of Iraq as he believes the Bush administration was careless about sending them in nearly six years ago.