Thursday, January 18, 2007

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — U.S. military commanders have requested additional troops and aid for Afghanistan to combat a growing Taliban insurgency, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said yesterday.

Although the numbers are likely to be a fraction of the more than 21,500 additional troops President Bush has asked for to quell violence in Iraq, the request would put further strain on already stretched U.S. military resources.

After completing a fact-finding tour of Afghanistan, the new Pentagon chief flew to the Saudi capital of Riyadh to meet last night with King Abdullah for private talks on the war in Iraq and the growing strategic threat posed by Iran.

Mr. Gates said he and his top generals were considering a range of “different scenarios” on force levels in Afghanistan, but indicated he was likely to send a recommendation to Mr. Bush for an increase in Afghanistan if his commanders wanted it.

“I think it is very important not to let the success we have had in Afghanistan slip away from us,” Mr. Gates said. “There is no reason to sit back and let the terrorists regroup.”

The request for more troops was not a surprise, given concerns expressed by Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry and other U.S. military officials in Afghanistan about rising attacks from the fundamentalist Taliban and from terrorist groups linked to al Qaeda.

Last year saw the highest number of attacks on U.S., Afghan and NATO forces since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001 that ousted the Taliban from power.

Mr. Gates headed to Saudi Arabia yesterday after two days of briefings in Afghanistan, which included a visit to a U.S.-Afghan base near the border with Pakistan where insurgents have been increasingly active. There are more than 23,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, some attached to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and some helping to train the Afghan army and police force.

Gen. Eikenberry told reporters traveling with Mr. Gates this week that he wanted to assemble a reserve force of about 1,200 troops that could be deployed on short notice to problem spots across the country, but would not say how many new U.S. troops he was seeking.

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a “plus-up” in U.S. forces in Afghanistan could put “short-term stress” on the military, but would mean less strain on the force over the long run if the extra troops brought stability to the country.

But U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, speaking on background, said that an expected Taliban spring offensive could make 2007 even bloodier than 2006 and that the high levels of violence could continue into 2008.

Mr. Gates said that he was heartened by his visit, because U.S. and Afghanistan forces were working well in the field against the Taliban threat.

In Saudi Arabia, he met with King Abdullah and top Saudi officials for more than two hours at an elaborate royal hunting lodge near Riyadh. Iraq and Iran dominated the evening’s conversation, according to a senior U.S. defense official traveling with Mr. Gates.

“The Saudis are nervous about the trends in the region, and our pitch was that the Iraqi government deserves their support,” the official said.

The official said Saudi Arabia sees Iran “as an even greater threat than we do,” a rising Shi’ite power with a nuclear program and rising influence in Iraq and across the region.

Defense Department officials had said that Mr. Gates planned to press Iraq’s Arab neighbors to come through on promised aid for the beleaguered government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but the defense official last night said Mr. Gates did not press the funding issue specifically in his talks with the king.

The defense secretary’s “main mission,” the official said, was to communicate Mr. Bush’s resolve to follow through on his new Iraq strategy. “There’s no doubt [the Saudis] want us to succeed there,” the official said.

Asked before the meeting whether he was seeking the king’s help in containing Iran’s nuclear program, Mr. Gates said, “We can always use Saudi cooperation in dealing with issues in the Gulf region.”

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