KABUL (AFP) – The United States plans to send between 20,000 and 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan by next summer, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said here Saturday.
General David McKiernan, the US commander in Afghanistan, has asked for more than 20,000 extra US soldiers to counter a rise in insurgent violence, seven years after US forces first invaded the country to oust the Taliban from power.
But the potential deployment of 30,000 extra troops discussed by Mullen — the highest-ranking US military officer — would nearly double the US military presence in Afghanistan, which currently stands at 31,000.
“The troops that were asked for in joint discussions with General McKiernan is what we’re going to need for the foreseeable future. So I don’t see an increase any higher at this point than 20 to 30,000,” Mullen told reporters.
Mullen said he hoped the extra troops — including four combat brigades, an aviation brigade and other support forces — could be deployed by mid-2009.
“We’re looking to get them here in the spring, but certainly by the beginning of summer at the latest,” he said.
Mullen said he could not give the “exact number” of soldiers that would be sent, but said 20,000-30,000 represented “the window of the overall increase where we are right now.”
But he cautioned against thinking that a massive influx of US forces would automatically bring peace to the war-ravaged country.
“It isn’t going to make a difference after those troops get here, if we haven’t made progress on the development side and on the government side,” he said.
Some 70,000 foreign troops are already in Afghanistan, fighting an insurgency that has grown increasingly violent since the US-led coalition ousted the hardline Taliban regime in 2001.
This year has been the bloodiest for international forces here since the Taliban fell, with nearly 290 soldiers killed. About 1,000 Afghan troops and police, as well as more than 2,000 civilians, have also been killed in 2008.
When asked about the possibility of talks with the insurgents, after Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar to come to the negotiating table, Mullen remained cautious.
“In counter-insurgency, you always get to a point when you provide alternatives for individuals who are insurgents to change, those who are reconcilable,” he said.
“It’s my belief we need to do that from a position of strength.”
Outgoing US President George W. Bush, who made a surprise farewell visit to Afghanistan on Monday, warned that restoring peace to the country would take time.
“This is going to be a long struggle,” he told a joint news conference with Karzai. “Ideological struggles take time.”
US president-elect Barack Obama has pledged to withdraw forces from Iraq and redeploy them to Afghanistan, as part of his plan to tackle militancy and instability in south and central Asia.
On Friday, a US military official said Defence Secretary Robert Gates had already ordered the deployment of a combat aviation brigade with 2,800 troops to Afghanistan sometime after January.
“This is the beginning of the sourcing of the increased requirement that he (McKiernan) has asked for,” the official said.
But in an interview aired Wednesday, Gates indicated there would be limits to the US military build-up because of fears that the larger the presence, the greater the risk Afghans will turn against it as an occupation force.
“I think that we can meet the requirements of the commander in Afghanistan, our commander, General McKiernan, for the additional four brigade combat teams and a combat aviation team, without tipping the balance,” Gates said on PBS.
“But … after those forces are provided, I think we should think long and hard before we make any further significant troop contributions in Afghanistan.”
Dec. 22, 2008