In Afghanistan, Gates Talks of Rapid Troop Increase
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
Published: December 11, 2008
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here on Thursday that the Pentagon, which plans to send 20,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, was trying to get thousands of them into the country as soon as next spring, a sign of the seriousness of the threat by the Taliban.
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Pool photograph by Scott Olson
Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived at Kandahar Air field on Thursday in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
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The soldiers were requested by Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan. The first of them, about 3,500 to 4,000 troops from the Third Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y., are scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan next month.
Mr. Gates said he hoped to deploy an additional two combat brigades by the spring as part of an effort to combat growing violence and chaos in the country. Pentagon officials have said it would take 12 to 18 months to get all 20,000 troops to Afghanistan. The United States currently has some 34,000 troops in the country.
Both Mr. Gates and General McKiernan said Thursday that there would be a “sustained commitment” of American troops in Afghanistan for the next three or four years, although they declined to provide a number.
Later, Mr. Gates was critical of NATO for allowing the United States to bear a disproportionate burden in Afghanistan. About 30,000 foreign troops operate here under a NATO command.
Mr. Gates arrived here Thursday on an unannounced trip to a rapidly growing regional base for international forces in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strong.
The rationale for the trip, originally conceived as a chance for Mr. Gates to say goodbye to American troops, shifted after President-elect Barack Obama asked him to remain as defense secretary. On Thursday, Mr. Gates spent some time with the troops but more in meetings with General McKiernan and senior commanders about strategy in an increasingly difficult war.
Mr. Obama vowed during the presidential campaign to send thousands of more troops to Afghanistan, and he appears to be of the same mind-set of the men who will advise him on force levels. Even so, Mr. Gates, who has had recent conversations with Mr. Obama and has met with the president-elect’s transition team, made it clear that the new administration’s military policy in Afghanistan was far from settled.
“I have not heard anybody talking about forces beyond those that General McKiernan has already requested,” he said. “And I think that’s a discussion that the new administration will have as we look to the future.”
What was striking about the trip was the tone of weariness that cropped up in the remarks of both Mr. Gates and General McKiernan about the Afghan war. “Let’s put it in historical perspective — this country has been at war for the last 30 years,” General McKiernan told reporters, using the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 as the starting point. “Thirty years. That’s not going to stop overnight. So if your question is, might it get worse before it gets better, the answer is yes, it might.”
When Mr. Gates was asked here if the conflict would last 10 or 15 years, he made a comparison to the cold war. “I think that we are in many respects in an ideological conflict with violent extremists,” he said. “The last ideological conflict we were in lasted about 45 years.”
On the way to Kandahar, Mr. Gates said that his telephone discussions with Mr. Obama since they first met in Washington on Nov. 10 had largely focused on who would assume the top jobs under Mr. Gates at the Pentagon.
“I do not have specific candidates for specific jobs, and so they’re providing me with names and I’m giving them feedback,” Mr. Gates said.
Mr. Gates also said there had been “some occasional awkwardness” as he made the transition to working with a new commander in chief, including having to chose between attending a meeting of “principals” at the White House — a session of cabinet members, without the president — or a session with Mr. Obama’s transition team.
“I haven’t missed any meetings with the president, let me put it that way,” he said. “But let’s just say that if I’m faced with a choice between attending a principals’ meeting on an issue that I think is not particularly hot and a meeting with the transition folks, I’ll opt for the latter.”
More Articles in World » A version of this article appeared in print on December 12, 2008, on page A6 of the New York edition.