WASHINGTON– Afghanistan poses the greatest military challenge to the United States today, and President Barack Obama has made that country a top priority for the Defense Department, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee today.

With an improving situation in Iraq, the U.S. military is in a position to address Army Gen. David D. McKiernan’s stated requirements for additional troops, the secretary said. McKiernan is the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan.

If President Barack Obama decides to send additional troops to the country, “we could have two of those brigades there probably by late spring, and potentially a third by mid-summer,” Gates told the senators.

“Quite honestly, in terms of the remaining requests that [McKiernan] has, the infrastructure requirements that are needed in Afghanistan to be able to support and sustain a force that size would probably make it not possible for us to deploy [the troops] before they would be ready, in any event, later this year,” he said.

Additional troops are needed in Afghanistan so NATO forces have the numbers to clear an area and then hold it. The Taliban and their terrorist allies continually return to the same areas and re-establish their presence, officials have said. More troops can potentially keep insurgents out and allow economic and political development to begin in Afghanistan.

Gates said moving Army brigade combat teams and Marine regiments to Afghanistan would be less of a challenge than finding enabling forces. Helicopter units; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets; and engineers are crucial to combat troops’ success.

“That’s where we’ve been working very hard in terms of what can we afford to move from Iraq to Afghanistan, or ‘re-mission,’ instead of going to Iraq, to go to Afghanistan,” he said. “This has been the biggest challenge about strengthening our forces in Afghanistan, is really where to get these enablers to ensure that the troops have what they need.”

Gates said the United States must have a realistic vision of what the international community can do in Afghanistan. “Afghanistan is the fourth- or fifth-poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian ‘Valhalla’ over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money,” he said.

The secretary reminded senators that Afghanistan has a drug trade that forms most of its gross national product, an insurgency that is gaining strength, and terrorists who look at the area as a safe haven.

Still, Afghans are good farmers, and there is mineral wealth and a legal economy that can be developed. “But it seems to me that we need to keep our objectives realistic and limited in Afghanistan; otherwise, we will set ourselves up for failure,” he said.

More than 40 countries, the United Nations, the European Union and many nongovernmental organizations have a presence in the country. “There are a lot of people trying to help Afghanistan come out right, but figuring out how to coordinate all of that, and then how to coordinate it with the military operations is a very complex business,” Gates said.

Ambassador Kai Eide of Norway, the U.N. senior special representative to Afghanistan, is perhaps in the best position for coordination efforts. “Finally, after long delays, he has begun to get both the financial and human resources from the U.N. that would enable him to do this,” Gates said.

Foreign troops in Afghanistan are not the long-term solution. Gates said an increase in the Afghan National Army and other security forces “is our ticket out” in the long term. American and other NATO forces will be needed to train these new Afghan forces, which also will help security forces hold and develop parts of the country.

Gates also touched on Pakistan. The Taliban have found refuge in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and insurgents are known to cross the border at will. “Pakistan is a friend and partner, and it is necessary for us to stay engaged and help wherever we can,” Gates said. “I can assure you that I continue to watch the situation in Pakistan closely.”

As for Afghanistan, Gates said the American people must have the patience for a long and difficult fight. But, “we can attain what I believe should be among our strategic objectives: above all, an Afghan people who do not provide a safe haven for al-Qaida, who reject the rule of the Taliban and support the legitimate government they have elected and in which they have a stake,” he said.

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