Senior U.S. military officials are developing plans to speed the deployment of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, including possibly pulling the next brigade scheduled to go to Iraq this fall and sending it to Afghanistan instead.
President Bush has already committed to beefing up the U.S. presence in Afghanistan next year. But Defense Department officials said the recent efforts of military planners would accelerate the process and could allow the new brigade of 3,500 soldiers to deploy there before the end of this year.
The change comes amid growing violence in southern and eastern Afghanistan, prompting U.S. commanders in that country as well as other military brass to push the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to reevaluate troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Sunday, nine U.S. soldiers were killed at a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan during a sophisticated offensive by hundreds of Taliban fighters, the largest single American loss of life in Afghanistan in three years.
The U.S. and Afghan troops who manned the outpost have been ordered to abandon the base, a NATO spokesman said Wednesday. The post is a small, recently constructed facility near the village of Wanat, close to the border with Pakistan.
In an indication of the shifting troop-deployment effort, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said at a news conference that he expected to be able to recommend a resumption of withdrawals from Iraq in September.
“I won’t go so far as to say that progress in Iraq, from a military perspective, has reached a tipping point, or it is irreversible; it has not and it is not,” said Mullen, who this weekend returned from a weeklong trip to both theaters. “But security is unquestionably better, and remarkably better.”
In recent months, Pentagon planners have said they would not be able to move a significant number of new forces to Afghanistan until Iraq withdrawals resumed. Mullen’s comments were the clearest yet by a senior military official that such reductions are likely to begin again soon.
The Bush administration’s buildup of forces in Iraq, known as the troop surge, is to end this month. After that, the next brigade to be withdrawn, the 1st Brigade of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, is scheduled to depart in late fall. Another unit, the 2nd Brigade of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, was scheduled to take its place.
But if plans change, the 2nd Brigade would instead be assigned to train Afghan security forces. Such a change in mission could postpone the unit’s deployment until early next year. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he did not intend to extend combat tours or shorten home stays to boost troop levels, as was done during the surge last year. Instead, Pentagon officials are looking for other ways to deploy more units.
“We are clearly working very hard to see if there are opportunities to send additional forces sooner rather than later,” said Gates, appearing with Mullen at the news conference.
There now are 36,000 American troops in Afghanistan, including 3,500 Marines who are scheduled to leave this fall. U.S. commanders have repeatedly said they need as many as three more brigades, or about 10,000 troops.
The attack in Wanat on Sunday heightened already grave concerns among senior military brass about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
Most of the military’s four-star commanders were at the Pentagon this week for a regularly scheduled conference. Defense officials familiar with the discussions said some made heated appeals for more troops in Afghanistan. The topic was also discussed at a meeting of the Joint Chiefs on Wednesday afternoon, officials said.
Mullen said the outpost in Wanat had too few personnel -- about 45 American and 25 Afghan soldiers -- to deal with the size of the attacking insurgent force. One in five of the U.S. defenders was killed, and nearly half the American survivors were wounded, along with four of the Afghan troops.
Fortifications for the base, which had been established only days earlier, were not yet complete when the assault took place, military officials said. Insurgents customarily carry out close surveillance of Western troop movements and may have known the facility was vulnerable.
After the outpost was evacuated, Afghan authorities said, the area was overrun by Taliban fighters. Afghan police, who were provided with weapons by the departing Western troops, had fled, they added.
“The area was too dangerous for police, so they spread outward to nearby villages, or went away into the neighboring province,” said Omar Sameh, a spokesman for the provincial government of Nuristan. He said about 100 insurgents were believed to be ensconced in Wanat, which the fighters had used as a staging ground for the assault.
However, another provincial spokesman told the Associated Press that police reinforcements had arrived and that Afghan authorities had regained control of the village.
Times staff writer Spiegel reported from Washington and special correspondent Faiez from Kabul, Afghanistan. Times staff writer Laura King in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.