- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates increased the size of the Army by 22,000 troops Monday, as coalition troop deaths this month in Afghanistan reached levels not seen since the worst fighting in Iraq began tapering off in late 2007.

The deaths of four U.S. troops in a roadside bomb attack Monday underscored the significance of Mr. Gates’ decision, with at least 30 U.S. combat deaths, 55 deaths for all coalition forces and 11 days remaining in the month.

Mr. Gates said that the increase would raise the Army’s size to 569,000 troops and cost an additional $1 billion a year.

“This is a temporary challenge that will peak in the coming year and abate over the course of the next three years,” Mr. Gates told reporters at the Pentagon.

Click here to see how the number of coalition troops killed in Iraq compares to the number killed in Afghanistan.

July marks a key month for President Obama’s efforts to shift focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, highlighted by the deployment of 4,000 Marines to Helmand province in the south. The president has warned that casualties are likely to increase in the months ahead.

Unlike in Iraq, where the overwhelming majority of deaths were among U.S. forces, other nations such as Britain and Canada accounted for nearly half of the fallen troops in Afghanistan.

Mr. Gates said the increase in overall U.S. force strength was needed in light of escalating demands on the military as a result of “the escalating violence in Afghanistan and political turmoil in Pakistan … and an associated increase in American forces in Afghanistan.”

The casualty rate in Afghanistan can be compared to that in Iraq in 2007, a pivotal year in which the insurgency peaked in the first six months before buckling under the U.S. surge. The toll hit a peak of 131 combat deaths in May and had fallen to 25 in December, according to the Web site icasualties.org.

Seth Jones, an analyst at the Rand Corp. who often travels to Afghanistan, said the terrain makes it difficult to distinguish a bomb from a rock.

“The Taliban doesn’t want direct force-to-force engagement,” Mr. Jones said. “The larger issue is going to be whether we can hold the territory after we capture it from the Taliban.”

Since last year, the Taliban has shown that it is capable of returning to areas that were cleared by U.S. forces. “The real focus must be gaining support networks within Afghan tribes, sub-tribes and clans in southern and eastern Afghanistan.”

Mr. Gates said that without the expansion, “the Army faces a period where its ability to continue to deploy [enough] combat units is at risk.”

“The soldiers we are looking to add to our force will no doubt give us some breathing room,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “But they will also give us room to run in what I believe is an even faster-paced war against an even more adaptive enemy. It’s the right thing to do.”

Mr. Gates said the Pentagon would fund the expansion out of savings elsewhere, at least until the end of fiscal 2010.

Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, welcomed Mr. Gates’ decision to boost troop strength, saying he was concerned about the demands being placed on service members.

“This important step will help reduce the strain on the overall force and help address readiness concerns more quickly than we had anticipated. It is the right thing to do,” Mr. Skelton said.

Many service members have already served an unprecedented three and four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Gates also said Monday the military was “sparing no effort” to find and rescue the young soldier captured by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.

He condemned the release of a video in which the soldier, Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, 23, from Ketchum, Idaho, says the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan “is not only not working but is failing very quickly.”

In the video, Pfc. Bergdahl says he is being treated well, and that the U.S. government “is misinforming the American people about the true facts and the reality over here in Afghanistan.”

He urges Americans “to stand up against the politics and the military leaders and … tell them to bring [the military] home.”

Said Mr. Gates: “My personal reaction was one of disgust at the exploitation of this young man. … Our commanders are sparing no effort to find this young soldier,” he added.

Adm. Mullen said a “vast” manhunt was being run by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “They’re on it 24/7,” he said.

July’s coalition death toll of at least 55 thus far exceeds the previous record of 46 deaths suffered in June and August of 2008, according to the Associated Press.

• Sara A. Carter contributed to this report.

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