Gates: More troops could head to Afghanistan

WASHINGTON Both issues reflect demands on increasingly stressed American forces tasked with fighting two wars.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates' comments came during a short visit to Fort Drum in upstate New York -- an Army post that that he said has deployed more soldiers to battle zones over the last 20 years than any other unit. Two Fort Drum brigades are headed to Iraq later this year, and a third is currently in Afghanistan.

Asked about Afghanistan by one soldier, Gates said, "I think there will not be a significant increase in troop levels in Afghanistan beyond the 68,000, at least probably through the end of the year. Maybe some increase, but not a lot."

So far, the Obama administration has approved sending 68,000 troops to Afghanistan by the end of 2009, including 21,000 that were added this spring.

The White House has wanted to wait until the end of the year before deciding whether to deploy more, but a defense official said Thursday that Gates does not want to discourage his new commander in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, from taking a frank look at how many troops he needs.

McChrystal, who took over as commander for all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan last month, is expected to advise Washington in the next few weeks on his views of how to end, and win, the 8-year war.

McChrystal is nearing the end of a 60-day review of troop requirements in Afghanistan, and will soon provide that report to Gates.

The former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, had told Obama that he needed an additional 10,000 troops, beyond the 68,000. The White House had put off that decision until the end of this year.

Gates and other military leaders have said they are reluctant to send many more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, because of concerns that a large American footprint there could appear to Afghans as an occupying force.

During a question-and-answer session with soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, Gates also said he is looking at beefing up the Army with more troops. He did not say by how many, or what the plan would cost, but predicted that he'll decide as early as next week.

"We are very mindful of stress on the force," he said.

Most of the 200 soldiers in the short town hall-style meeting are headed to Iraq later this fall. Their commander, Maj. Gen. Mike Oates, returned from his third tour in Iraq only 50 days ago and said he is working to easing stress on soldiers and their family members who have faced a seemingly revolving door of deployments since 2001.

"What we're trying to do is help everybody receive this stress and deal with it better," Oates told reporters. "And there's a lot of room for growth there."

Gates stopped at Fort Drum on his way to Chicago, where he is expected to give a feisty speech Thursday evening hammering Congress for trying to tack on billions of dollars for additional F-22 fighter jets to the Pentagon's 2010 spending plan.

The Senate is debating whether to add $1.75 billion to the half-trillion dollar budget to buy more jets that supporters say will better protect the United States and save jobs in the faltering economy. Meanwhile, the House has voted to spend $369 million more as a down payment on 12 additional jets.

Speaking to reporters aboard his plane to Chicago, Gates would not link the F-22 spending directly to the costs that will be needed to grow the Army. But he called Congress' demands "a zero-sum game."

"A dollar for something we don't need is a dollar taken away from something we do need," Gates told reporters. "And we've got a lot we need."

He predicted the Senate vote on the funds will be close but noted President Barack Obama's threat to veto the added money should it be approved.

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