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Gates says US will add combat troops to Afghanistan next year, regardless of Iraq situation
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    ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — The United States intends to send many more combat forces to Afghanistan next year, regardless of whether troop levels in Iraq are cut further this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday.
    It is the first time the Bush administration has made such a commitment for 2009.
    Gates, speaking to reporters on his way to Muscat, Oman, from a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, said President Bush made the pledge at the summit on Thursday.
    Bush was not specific about the number of additional troops that would go to Afghanistan in 2009, Gates said. The United States now has about 31,000 troops there — the most since the war began in October 2001 — and has been pressing the allies to contribute more.
    Until now, the heavy commitment of U.S. forces in Iraq has been a constraint on the ability to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. But Gates said he did not believe that would be the case in 2009.
    Gates said he advised Bush to make the pledge to allied leaders in Bucharest even though the movement of the unspecified additional troops would ultimately be a decision for the next president, who will take office in January.
    ‘‘The question arises, how can we say that about 2009?’’ Gates said. ‘‘All I would say is, I believe ... this is one area where there is very broad bipartisan support in the United States for being successful’’ in Afghanistan, where by many accounts progress against the Taliban resistance has stalled.
    ‘‘I think that no matter who is elected president, they would want to be successful in Afghanistan. So I think this was a very safe thing for him to say,’’ the Pentagon chief added.
    Gates said he believed it was too early to decide how many additional combat forces the United States should plan on sending in 2009. He said it would depend on several things, including the extent of U.S. and NATO success on the battlefield this year, as well as the impact of a new senior U.S. commander taking over in coming months. Gen. David McKiernan is due to replace Gen. Dan McNeill this spring as the top overall commander in Afghanistan
    McNeill has said he believes he needs another three brigades — two for combat and one for training. That translates to roughly 7,500 to 10,000 additional troops. The Bush administration has no realistic hope of getting the NATO allies to send such large numbers.
    McKiernan on Thursday told Congress that while he can’t yet say how many more troops he would want there, he believes he needs additional combat and aviation forces, intelligence and surveillance capabilities, and training and mentoring teams.
    In remarks to reporters after Bush made the statement at the summit Thursday, the president’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said any extra U.S. combat troop deployments would be in southern Afghanistan, where fighting is heaviest.
    Gates said he believed that was a logical possibility but that it was too early to say they would go to the south.
    ‘‘I put this in front of the president as a possibility, as something that I thought we ought to be willing to say and do,’’ Gates said. He added that part of his reasoning was that such a pledge by Bush would have extra effect at a summit meeting where France announced that it will send several hundred combat troops to Afghanistan this year — a decision that Bush explicitly praised.
    It is widely agreed within the administration and between the United States and its key allies in Afghanistan that they have too few troops on the ground to both effectively fight the Taliban resistance — especially in the volatile south — and accelerate the training of Afghan soldiers and police.
    Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week there are not enough forces in Afghanistan to hold onto any security gains that troops make there. Troop commitments in Iraq, he said, make it impossible for the U.S. to meet requirements for at least two additional combat brigades.
    ‘‘We’ve had significant impact there, but we don’t have enough forces there to hold in what is a classic counterinsurgency,’’ he said.
    The question that has been contemplated for many months is how to find additional troops.
    The administration initially pushed hard for other NATO countries to fill the gap. Having largely failed in that effort, the U.S. military now seems convinced that it will have to bear more of the load.
    The U.S. currently has about 158,000 troops in Iraq. But that number is expected to dip to about 140,000 after July, when the last of the additional forces ordered to Baghdad last year return home.
    That will reduce the number of combat brigades there from 20 to 15. And military leaders have expressed hope that after a pause in troop cuts for as much as two months, the Pentagon could continue to reduce troop levels in Iraq later this year.
    On a related topic, Gates said he had not yet approved the Army’s proposal to shrink combat tours from 15 months to 12 months, a move the Army says is needed to relieve strain on troops and their families. Gates also has spoken of a need to shorten tour lengths, but the matter is complicated by the uncertain prospect for troop requirements in Iraq.
    Gates said he expected a decision ‘‘fairly soon,’’ but probably not before Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, publicly presents his recommendations on Iraq in congressional testimony next week.
    In his most extensive explanation of the factors being weighed on this, Gates suggested there is an argument against shortening tours to 12 months.
    ‘‘It really is whether we’re prepared — and ultimately the president — to sign up to something that clearly imposes some limits on what we could do in the future,’’ Gates said. He was referring to the fact that the 15-month tours gave the Army the ability to build up in Iraq in 2007 — a cornerstone of Bush’s revised Iraq strategy known as the ‘‘surge’’ - with the limited number of ground combat brigades in its ranks.
    ‘‘So the bottom line is, we’re all still looking at that,’’ he added.
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    Associated Press Reporter Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.