ABC’s Luis E. Martinez reports: When President Obama visits the Pentagon tomorrow he will be presented with plans that by week’s end could see as many as 17,000 additional US troops receiving their deployment orders for Afghanistan.
Testifying on Capitol Hill today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there is little doubt that Aghanistan is the greatest military challenge for the US right now. To that end he spoke of the well-known request from the top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, for additional brigades and for the first time he outlined an expedited timeline for their arrival which Obama will likely be presented with tomorrow.
Asked by Senator Carl Levin if a troop increase in Afghanistan was still dependent on the further drawdown of troop levels in Iraq, Gates replied, "Mr. Chairman, at this point, I think that we are actually in a position to address most of General McKiernan’s requirements in the relatively near future." He added that, "Should the president make the decision to — the final decision to deploy additional brigades to Afghanistan, we could have two of those brigades there probably by late spring, and potentially a third by mid-summer. "
Gates’ answer was a faster timeline for the arrival of the requested brigades than either he or Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen have outlined before. Both have said in the past that the Pentagon could send two additional brigades to Afghanistan by the summer and that it would take time to send the a third brigade and the additional "enabler" troops to support their effort.
Two Defense Officials say that Gates was referring to plans that will likely be presented to President Obama tomorrow during his meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The plans will identify the three brigade combat units that will head to Afghanistan later this year and some of the enabler troops — this could total around 17,000 troops. Orders will go for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade to arrive in the spring, counting their self-contained support and aviation units, this combat brigade plus enablers could total about 10,000 in number. In the late spring or early summer, an Army Stryker Brigade will flow into Afghanistan, that’s about 4,000 troops. A third Army Brigade Combat Team will flow into Afghanistan in the fall, that’s an additional 3,500 troops.
Pentagon planners have estimated that meeting McKiernan’s request will take 25,000 troops over the next 18 months. It is possible that by Thursday, the Pentagon may have given orders to a significant portion of the requested troops to begin flowing into Afghanistan. The first of the four additional brigades that Gen McKiernan has requested, the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division has already begun flowing into Afghanistan. This week’s orders would be for the additional three brigades and enabler troops that would meet his request.
Gates said later in his testimony that he would be skeptical of further troop requests from McKiernan in Afghanistan noting how important it is to put an Afghan face on the conflict and learning from the Soviet Union’s mistake in the 1980′s when even 120,000 troops weren’t enough to win there. He reaffirmed the US mission there will last many years.
"This is going to be a long slog, and frankly, my view is that we need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan," Secretary Gates said. "Afghanistan is the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience or money, to be honest. Now, we can help the Afghans….But it seems to me that we need to keep our objectives realistic and limited in Afghanistan. Otherwise, we will set ourselves up for failure."
Also, Gates says he doesn’t envision any further significant troop flows into Iraq given the various drawdown schedules in place, namely the SOFA that requires all US troops out by the end of 2011.