More troops to Afghanistan

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has begun planning to send as many as 7,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan next year to make up for a shortfall in contributions from NATO allies, senior Bush administration officials said.

They said the step would push the number of U.S. forces there to roughly 40,000, the highest level since the war began, and would require at least a modest reduction in troops from Iraq.

The planning began in recent weeks, reflecting a growing resignation to the fact that NATO was unable or unwilling to contribute more troops in Afghanistan, where the government of President Hamid Karzai faces a resurgent threat from the Taliban and remnants of al-Qaida, despite pledges offered by the presidents and prime ministers who attended an alliance summit meeting in Bucharest last month.

The increasing proportion of U.S. troops, from about half to about two-thirds of the foreign troops in Afghanistan, would be likely to result in what one senior administration official described as "the re-Americanization" of the war.

A dozen NATO countries have pledged a total of about 2,000 troops, according to senior NATO officials, who provided the information on condition they not be identified according to their standard diplomatic rules. Senior alliance commanders in Afghanistan have said they need about 10,000 new forces.

Few of the additional troops are expected to materialize any time soon, the officials added.

Officials stressed that no formal new U.S. deployment plans for Afghanistan had been presented to the Pentagon or the White House and that the decision could be left to the next president, though they would not rule out the prospect that Bush would order a troop increase.

Bush has long faced criticism that the Iraq war distracted the country from confronting the al-Qaida threat in Afghanistan, and Democrats as well as Republicans have expressed general support for shifting more attention to Afghanistan.

There are about 62,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about 34,000 of them American, up from just 25,000 U.S. troops in 2005.

The U.S. troops are divided into a force of 16,000 who operate under NATO command and an additional 18,000 who are conducting counterterrorism and other missions under U.S. command outside of the NATO structure, according to Pentagon statistics.

The initial planning under way would send about two additional brigades of U.S. forces, or about 7,000 troops, to Afghanistan next year.

That would meet two-thirds of what commanders have portrayed in recent months as a shortfall of three brigades, or about 10,000 troops, including combat forces, trainers, intelligence officers and crews for added helicopters and troop carriers.

Bush administration officials initially argued that NATO should fill that void, because the U.S. military was overextended in Iraq. And publicly, the administration has remained mostly supportive of the alliance effort, with the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, declaring at the NATO summit last month that in addressing the problems in Afghanistan, "NATO's answer today is help is on the way."

The results of the NATO session disappointed commanders in Afghanistan.

A NATO military spokesman issued a diplomatically worded statement this week. "In the run-up to and during the Bucharest summit, nations added extra contributions," the statement from Kabul said. "However, shortfalls still exist."

As with previous shortfalls in NATO commitments, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates could be prompted to fill the void, perhaps deploying other U.S. forces to replace the 3,200 Marines who arrived over recent weeks in what was described as a one-time, seven-month stop-gap deployment.

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