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U.S. Aims For 7,000 More Afghan Troops By Summer

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- The United States aims to send at least an extra 7,000 troops to Afghanistan by next summer but must also do more to involve Afghans in the fight against the rising insurgency, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.

Gates, visiting a NATO military base in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, said he was working to meet a request for more forces from U.S. General David McKiernan, the alliance's top commander in Afghanistan.

"We're going to try and get two additional brigade combat teams, in response to his request, into Afghanistan by summertime," Gates, who will stay in his post in the administration of President-elect Barack Obama, told reporters on board his plane.

There are some 65,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about 31,000 of them from the United States, struggling to stabilize the country in the face of rising violence from Taliban militants and other insurgents.

One additional U.S. brigade combat team of roughly 3,500 soldiers is already due to deploy in January. McKiernan has asked for three more plus extra support units.

A total of more than 20,000 extra U.S. troops is likely to deploy to Afghanistan in the next year or two, according to the Pentagon.

Gates said he had not yet signed off on orders to deploy the next two brigades.

He told Congress in September that he believed more forces would be available by next spring or summer and his latest comments indicate that remains the case.

Iraqi Withdrawals Key

Washington's ability to send troops to Afghanistan still depends largely on withdrawals from Iraq.

With violence there at its lowest level in more than five years and U.S. troops due to pull out of Iraqi urban areas by the end of June, commanders see scope for withdrawals but have warned the situation there remains fragile.

Obama, who opposed the Iraq war, has said he wants U.S. combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months but that he will listen to the advice of military officers.

He has pledged a renewed focus on Afghanistan, where U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001 after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Gates, a former CIA director involved in U.S. support for Islamist militants fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, said NATO and the United States should give Afghans more say in their plans.

"The history of foreign military forces in Afghanistan when they have been regarded by the Afghan people as there for their own interests and as occupiers has not been a happy one," Gates said.

"The Soviets couldn't win in Afghanistan with 120,000 troops," said Gates, who planned to meet McKiernan and other NATO commanders in Kandahar and hold a town hall-style meeting with troops.

"We have to do a better job of working with the Afghans and listening to what they have to say, incorporating that into our planning, and ensuring that they are out front," he said.

One way to get Afghans more involved in the fight would be to speed up efforts to double the size of the Afghan Army to 134,000 troops, Gates said.

"I would like to put a lot more stress on accelerating the growth of the Afghan Army," said Gates, who has also suggested the army could grow even beyond the latest target.

Gates also indicated a Bush administration review of Afghan strategy would be quietly passed onto the Obama administration, which takes office on January 20, rather than publicized with great fanfare.

"The general approach has been to low-key it and basically hand off what work has been done to the new administration, to the transition, and for them then to look at it and incorporate it as they see fit into their own work on Afghanistan," he said.