ON BOARD US MILITARY AIRCRAFT — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday he has urged NATO allies to temporarily increase force levels in Afghanistan next year to protect the 2009 presidential elections.
"I suggested that we consider a temporary further increase in troops next year in connection with the elections in Afghanistan to help the Afghans provide security," Gates told reporters.
"I just laid out a marker that I thought we should think about that going forward. We didn't really discuss it," he added.
The elections, which are supposed to be held in late 2009, will be a key test of the viability of a struggling, seven-year-old U.S. and NATO-led effort to build a democratically elected central government in Afghanistan.
Gates' comments on the flight home from Budapest followed a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers who agreed to step up operations against a flourishing Afghan drug trade that is fueling a Taliban insurgency.
It was held amid warnings in Washington that Afghanistan is on a downward spiral, dragged down by corruption, drugs and insurgent violence.
U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have asked for four more combat brigades and support troops — as many as 20,000 more troops — to counter the insurgency.
The United States has some 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, about 13,000 of them in a 50,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
Gates said he was satisfied with the NATO debate on drug trafficking which gave the International Security Assistance Force the go ahead to attack drug labs and traffickers.
"It is just going to be part of regular military operations. This is not going to be a special mission," Gates said, adding that the counter-drug effort was likely to focus on the southern part of the country.
"It starts with the commander of ISAF, and then it would a question of what forces are available. Obviously the United States and the U.K. are interested in doing this I think several others would but didn't speak out," he said.
Gates said he was pleased with other decisions reached by the defense ministers in Budapest.
He said a proposal he had made last year to increase the deployability of NATO forces from 40 to 50 percent was agreed to by the ministers.
NATO has 3.7 million active duty troops under arms, including nearly 1.4 million American troops.
Gates, who last month warned that Europe has gone too far in demilitarizing, also reported movement on long-standing US calls for higher levels of defense spending by U.S. allies.
"There wasn't any formal action taken on it but a number of countries told me that they were working on a proposal we made to increase their defense budgets over period of five years," he said.
Only seven NATO members spend at least two percent of their Gross Domestic Product on defense: the United States, Greece, the United Kingdom, France, Bulgaria, Croatia and Albania.
"I am fairly optimistic about the future," Gates said. "There is also an understanding that NATO can't fail in Afghanistan."
© 2008 Agence France Presse