ABC News’ Luis Martinez, Richard Coolidge and Martha Raddatz Report: Traveling in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he hopes to send an additional two combat brigades — or 7,000 troops — to that country by next summer.
Gates met with the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan today and received an update of U.S. operations there.
In a press conference with reporters, Gates reaffirmed his commitment to get more U.S. troops into Afghanistan, stating, "We are hopeful that we will be able to send an additional two Brigade Combat Teams by late spring." A Brigade Combat Team consists of about 3,500 troops.
The United States has 31,000 troops in Afghanistan and NATO has 34,000. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan has asked the Pentagon to send him an additional 20,000 troops — or four combat brigades and their support troops – to improve the security situation in that country in the wake of a resurgent Taliban insurgency. In the meeting, McKiernan also told Gates that the amount of money needed to equip and train the Afghan army, crucial to the U.S. strategy, was "not cheap."
"We’re going to try and get two additional brigade combat teams, in response to his request, into Afghanistan by summertime," Gates told reporters traveling with him.
The initial brigade, separate from the two additional ones Gates mentioned, is due to arrive in Afghanistan in January. The 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Divison will set up its base near Kabul, and will deploy its troops near the capital, which until recently has been relatively secure — a sign of how badly the security situation has deteriorated. In parts south of Kabul, the Taliban has taken advantage of a lack of western troops to mount attacks on the capital and surrounding area.
Gates said he had not yet signed off on orders to deploy the next two brigades. Sending more troops to Afghanistan still remains dependent on additional drawdowns from Iraq which, though expected, have so far not been indicated by Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Responding to questions about the length of the mission, Gates explained, "This is a long fight, and I think we’re in it until we are successful," later adding, "I do believe that there will be a requirement for sustained commitment here for some protracted period of time. How many years that is and how many troops that is I think nobody knows at this point."
He also held a town-hall meeting with almost 300 servicemen and told them that the "size and scope" of the mission are going to change in the next few months, detailing that the military is expanding its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the country.
He affirmed the importance of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, recalling that the same people responsible for 9/11 were still plotting attacks against the U.S. from the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, declaring, "We can succeed, we must succeed, we will succeed."
In late September, Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would not be until the spring or summer of 2009 that additional troops would become available to meet the request for additional brigades in Afghanistan.