U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday the military resources needed to stem Taliban gains were arriving in Afghanistan but signaled he would be open to sending additional troops, asserting the war was not "slipping through the administration's fingers."
Gates appeared to tone down his personal reservations about a troop increase, saying his long-standing concerns about the U.S. and NATO presence becoming too large could be "mitigated" if Afghans viewed any additional Western troops as partners rather than occupiers.
A classified assessment of the war by U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has intensified debate within the administration over sending additional troops into the fight with the Taliban.
Officials have described the White House as wary of committing to more troops for the war in Afghanistan, fearing a political backlash, particularly within President Barack Obama's own Democratic Party.
Obama's popularity has been dented by the raucous U.S. debate over healthcare, and public support for the war has eroded as U.S. combat deaths rose to record levels.
A willingness by Gates to accept a larger U.S. and NATO "footprint" in Afghanistan could influence Obama's decision-making. Gates will meet the president next week to discuss McChrystal's assessment and the administration's options, Pentagon officials said.
"I don't believe that the war is slipping through the administration's fingers," Gates told a news conference.
After eight years of war, he said, "the fact that Americans would be tired of having their sons and daughters at risk and in battle is not surprising."
Gates said not all of the forces authorized by Obama have arrived in Afghanistan, and that the administration's new strategy -- aimed at reducing Afghan civilian casualties and fostering public support for NATO forces -- had only recently been put in place and would "take some time" to work.
But he added: "We think that we now have the resources ... and the right approach to begin making some headway and turning around a situation that, as many have indicated, has been deteriorating."
Gates said any request for additional resources would be submitted after consultations between military chiefs and the White House. He did not put a timeframe on that process.
McChrystal has about 103,000 troops under his command, including 63,000 Americans, half of whom arrived this year as part of an escalation strategy that was started by former President George W. Bush and ramped up under Obama.
The Western force is set to rise to 110,000, including 68,000 Americans, by year's end, stretching the U.S. military to its limits, military officials said.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said McChrystal spelled out to the chain of command in "frank and candid" terms the state of the war in Afghanistan, adding that the Pentagon had a "sense of urgency" and understood that "time is not on our side."
Military commanders and administration and congressional leaders have held preliminary discussions about future troop options, including sending a second 5,000-member Marine Regimental Combat Team to southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold, participants said. This would boost the number of Marines in the country to 15,000-18,000 from just over 10,000.
An outside adviser to McChrystal, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said last month that between 15,000 and 45,000 new U.S. combat troops -- the equivalent of three to nine brigades -- may have to be sent to Afghanistan above the 21,000 additional forces that Obama approved earlier this year.
"There has been enormous focus on troop numbers and time lines lately. Lots of conjecture, lots of speculation," Mullen said. "What's more important than the numbers of troops he may or may not ask for is how he intends to use them."
A former CIA chief who helped mujahideen rebels drive the Soviets from Afghanistan, Gates has previously expressed concern that if the U.S. and NATO presence becomes too large, Afghans will see it as an occupying force.
"I take seriously General McChrystal's point that the size of the imprint, of the footprint ... depends in significant measure on the nature of the footprint and the behavior of those troops and their attitudes and their interactions with the Afghans," Gates said.
"And if they interact with the Afghans in a way that gives confidence to the Afghans that we're their partners and their allies, then the risks that I have been concerned about, about the footprint becoming too big and the Afghans seeing us in some role other than partners, I think is mitigated," he added.
(Editing by Vicki Allen and Mohammad Zargham)
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