WASHINGTON, Sept. 17, 2009 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today defended the president’s plan to keep the recent Afghanistan assessment classified and said the decision to send more troops there should be weighed carefully.

“There’s been a lot of talk this week and the last two or three weeks about Afghanistan,” Gates said during a briefing at the Pentagon. “And frankly, from my standpoint, everybody ought to take a deep breath.”

Gates responded to questions about why the recent assessment by Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has been kept classified and away from the public.

He said the president deserves the right to “absorb the assessment himself” and have his questions answered by top civilian and military officials.

“We need to understand that the decisions that the president faces … on Afghanistan are some of the most important he may face in his presidency, about how we go forward there,” Gates said.

The assessment will be made available to lawmakers, he said.

The secretary already has authorized up to 3,000 additional troops with critical specialties –- as requested by McChrystal — and is prepared to send more, if needed, before the president makes his decision. No formal request for more has come from McChrystal, but a resource request is expected in the next few weeks.

Gates noted that it is more important now to ensure the right strategy is in place, rather than to simply start sending additional troops.

“I felt a sense of building momentum that’s sort of demanding a decision in days, if not a week or two,” Gates said. “And I just think that, given the importance of the decisions that the president faces, we need to take our time and get this right.”

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