CHICAGO - The Pentagon's chief said Thursday he could sendmore U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year than he'd initiallyexpected and is considering increasing the number of soldiers inthe Army.
Both issues reflect demands on increasingly stressed Americanforces tasked with fighting two wars.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates' comments came during a shortvisit to Fort Drum in upstate New York -- an Army post that that hesaid has deployed more soldiers to battle zones over the last 20years than any other unit. Two Fort Drum brigades are headed toIraq in coming months, and a third is currently in Afghanistan.
Asked about Afghanistan by one soldier, Gates said, "I thinkthere will not be a significant increase in troop levels inAfghanistan beyond the 68,000, at least probably through the end ofthe year. Maybe some increase, but not a lot."
So far, the Obama administration has approved sending 68,000troops to Afghanistan by the end of 2009, including 21,000 thatwere added this spring.
The White House has wanted to wait until the end of the yearbefore deciding whether to deploy more, but Pentagon spokesmanGeoff Morrell said that Gates does not want to discourage his newcommander in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, from taking a franklook at how many troops he needs.
McChrystal, who took over as commander for all U.S. and NATOforces in Afghanistan last month, is expected to advise Washingtonin the next few weeks on his views of how to win the 8-year war.
McChrystal is nearing the end of a 60-day review of trooprequirements in Afghanistan, and will soon provide that report toGates.
The former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan,had told Obama that he needed an additional 10,000 troops, beyondthe 68,000. The White House had put off that decision until the endof this year.
Gates and other military leaders have said they are reluctant tosend many more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, because of concerns thata large American footprint there could appear to Afghans as anoccupying force.
During a question-and-answer session with soldiers from the 10thMountain Division, Gates also said he is looking at beefing up theArmy with more troops. He did not say by how many, or what the planwould cost, but predicted that he'll decide as early as next week.
"We are very mindful of stress on the force," he said.
Earlier this week, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., filedlegislation to authorize the hiring of 30,000 new active-duty Armysoldiers for the 2010 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. In astatement, Lieberman called it a "critical first step towardmaking sure that our military leaders can execute their strategywhile also reducing the heavy strain on our soldiers and theirfamilies."
Most of the 200 soldiers in Thursday's short town hall-stylemeeting are headed to Iraq later this fall. Their commander, Maj.Gen. Mike Oates, returned from his third tour in Iraq only 50 daysago and said he is working to easing stress on soldiers and theirfamily members who have faced a seemingly revolving door ofdeployments since 2001.
"What we're trying to do is help everybody receive this stressand deal with it better," Oates told reporters. "And there's alot of room for growth there."
Gates stopped at Fort Drum on his way to Chicago, where he gavea feisty speech Thursday evening hammering Congress for trying totack on billions of dollars for additional F-22 fighter jets to thePentagon's 2010 spending plan.
Troop safety remained on Gates' mind, however, as he told afriendly audience of the Economic Club of Chicago that high Armysuicide rates "are a reflection of the stress on the force."
Fifty-one soldiers have killed themselves since March 1, theArmy reported Thursday. Still, that indicates a tapering of theextremely high numbers of suicides in January and February, when 41soldiers killed themselves amid intense Army efforts to stem thedeaths.
"My guess is, ultimately the solution to this problem is whereour soldiers have more time at home, where there's less stress andwhere we are not putting people through four and five rotations inincredibly stressful situations, where it's in Iraq orAfghanistan," Gates said.
He also took about 15 minutes of questions from the friendlyaudience, during which he repeated his belief that the U.S. prisonat Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be closed as President Barack Obamahas promised. He also said anew that Pentagon lawyers are lookingat whether gay troops who are outed by hostile colleagues can beprotected from military discharge until Congress changes thecontroversial "don't ask, don't tell" law.