Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the United States plans to send more combat troops to Afghanistan next year, regardless of whether troop levels are reduced in Iraq.  Speaking aboard a military aircraft on his way to Oman from the NATO summit in Romania, Gates said President Bush made the pledge to send a significant additional contribution of forces at the summit Thursday evening.  VOA Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

Defense Secretary Gates said he advised President Bush to pledge additional U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan at the NATO summit, even though their deployment will actually be a decision for the next American president, who will take office in January, 2009.   Gates told reporters aboard the aircraft there is broad, bipartisan support for success in Afghanistan, so he believed the president would be safe in making the pledge.

The pledge comes as the Pentagon is sending 2,200 Marines to Afghanistan in April to help fight the Taliban in the south, and another 1,000 to help train Afghan forces.

The United States now has a total of about 31,000 troops in Afghanistan, and has been pushing for its NATO allies to step up and also contribute more forces. There is widespread agreement that progress against the Taliban in Afghanistan has stalled, and that more troops and great political efforts are needed to keep the country from slipping back into the status of a failed state.

Speaking in Bucharest earlier this week, President Bush called on NATO allies to do more to counter the threat of terrorism by sending more troops to Afghanistan.

"The terrorist threat is real, it is deadly and defeating this enemy is the top priority of NATO," he said.  "Our alliance must maintain its resolve and finish the fight.  As [French] President [Nicolas] Sarkozy put it in London last week, we cannot afford to lose Afghanistan, whatever the cost, however difficult the victory, we cannot afford it, we must win. I agree completely."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced at the summit that France would send an additional battalion, or about 700 troops to Afghanistan, freeing up U.S. Marines to serve alongside Canadian troops in the volatile south.  President Bush praised Sarkozy's decision.

At the Pentagon earlier this week, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen made clear that he feels the high level of commitment of U.S. forces and resources to Iraq has had an impact on deployments to Afghanistan.

"So having forces in Iraq don't - at the level they are at - don't allow us to fill the need that we have in Afghanistan," he explained.

Defense Secretary Gates said it is too early to decide how many additional combat troops the U.S. should send next year, saying it would depend on several things, including the extent of U.S. and NATO success on the battleground this year.