WASHINGTON, Feb 11 – In the first significant military judgement of his presidency, US President Barack Obama will likely decide in "the next few days" on US troop deployments to Afghanistan, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said.
If Obama is going to deploy more troops to the country over the next few months, as US commanders have requested, he will need to act before a review of US policy for Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan is complete, Gates said.
Earlier the president named former CIA official Bruce Riedel as chair of the broad review, with instructions to have it ready by the time of a NATO summit in April, the White House said.
The moves are the latest sign the region is at the top of the president’s security agenda, as concerns grow about deteriorating security conditions in both countries.
"This is the first time that this president has been asked to deploy large numbers of troops overseas, and it seems to me a thoughtful and deliberative approach to that decision is entirely appropriate," Gates told reporters.
"The president will have several options before him," Gates told reporters, referring to the seven year US-led effort to stabilize Afghanistan.
"And I think he will make those decisions probably in the course of the next few days."
Gates said he had made his recommendations to the president, and that the options under consideration "give him several ways of going forward."
The US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, has requested up to 30,000 additional troops , including three more combat brigades and aviation brigade and support troops.
If they are approved for deployment, it would nearly double the size of the US force, which currently numbers around 37,000.
Gates has said the combat brigades could be in Afghanistan by mid-summer, the season when insurgent attacks and military operations surge.
Last summer saw the worst violence since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, according to a Pentagon report released this month that said insurgents were challenging the US-backed government for control in the east, south and "increasingly in the west."
Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a visit to Canada that the request for more troops has been "out for many months and those working through the request recognize that the sooner the better."
Mullen added that more US troops were needed to allow for development and aid projects to go ahead, as insurgents were often moving back into areas where NATO forces had previously pushed them out.
"It’s got to be enough forces to be able not just to clear, but we’ve got to have enough forces in there to hold, which we haven’t had in the past," he said.
During the previous administration, the Pentagon put off sending reinforcements to Afghanistan in order to keep more troops in Iraq, where there are now 146,000 troops.
Gates indicated Afghanistan has overtaken Iraq in the new administration’s list of priorities.
"The review of options for Iraq has not really begun yet. The focus so far has been on Afghanistan," Gates said.
Riedel, who will report to Obama and national security adviser Jim Jones, was given until the April 3-4 NATO summit in Strasbourg, France and Khel, Germany to complete the strategy review.
That would position Obama, in his first such meeting as president, to lay down the new US line with its allies.
Two other heavyweights will co-chair the review: Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defence for policy.
Holbrooke was in Islamabad on Tuesday meeting with Pakistani leaders who proposed a comprehensive policy review but also urged Washington to reconsider its use of missile attacks on suspected insurgents in tribal areas.
In his first White House press conference on Monday, Obama warned the United States would not allow Al-Qaeda to operate "with impunity."
"My bottom line is that we cannot allow Al-Qaeda to operate, we cannot have safe havens in that region. And we’re going to have to work both smartly and with consistency," Obama said.
Immediate steps are needed in Afghanistan to prevent an even worsening security situation, according to a report released late last month by the Atlantic Council of the United States.
"Urgent changes are required now to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failing or failed state," the report said.