Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates expressed deep concern Friday over the stability of Afghanistan, and a top U.S. military official said additional troops might be needed to strengthen the government in Kabul, which is under growing pressure from Taliban forces.
Gates plans to travel soon to the region to look for ways to aid the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates appeared worried by the rising violence in Afghanistan, where military commanders have warned that the spring thaw may bring one of the most brutal fighting seasons since the 2001 U.S. invasion.
“We mustn’t let this one slip out of our attention and, where we have had a victory, put it at risk,” Gates told senators in describing his upcoming trip. “One of the things that I am focused on particularly is, what will it take to reverse the trend line in Afghanistan and to strengthen the Karzai government?”
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that he was open to raising troop levels in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. Despite concerns that U.S. land forces are overstretched by their growing commitment in Iraq, the Pentagon could sustain an increase of forces in Afghanistan as well, he said.
About 22,000 U.S. military personnel are in Afghanistan; about half of them are fighting along with 32,000 other foreign troops under the command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who is to stop in Afghanistan during a trip to the Middle East starting this weekend, said she believed that President Bush’s plan to increase troops in Iraq was misguided and that new troops instead should be sent to Afghanistan, where, she said, U.S. policy was on “autopilot.”
“I wish we were discussing additional troops for Afghanistan,” Clinton said, speaking in Washington. “We are hearing increasingly troubling reports out of Afghanistan, and we will be searching for accurate information about the true state of affairs both militarily and politically.”
The comments by Gates and Pace came at a hearing on the Bush administration’s revised Iraq policy.
The Armed Services panel includes several senators -- Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- who have been outspoken supporters of a troop buildup.
McCain said those who want to begin withdrawing troops “have a responsibility to tell us what they believe are the consequences of withdrawal in Iraq. If we walk away from Iraq, we’ll be back, possibly in the context of a wider war in the world’s most volatile region.”
Still, Democrats voiced skepticism about the administration’s new strategy. The new committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), advocates a timetable for troop withdrawals and opposes the new plan.
“The reality behind the president’s new rhetoric is that the open-ended commitment continues,” Levin said.
Gates said he thought that Bush, who “has a longer view,” at times had to make decisions that didn’t “have broad support of the American people.”