U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated Thursday he might be receptive if his new commander in Afghanistan asks for more troops, but he is still concerned that having too many foreign forces in the country could alienate its people.
Secretary Gates says he expects to receive the eagerly-awaited assessment from General Stanley McChrystal after next week's Afghan election, in late August or early September. After that, he says, the general may present a separate document outlining any requests for additional forces.
At a news conference, the secretary acknowledged that in the past he has expressed reluctance to send more troops to Afghanistan, beyond the near doubling President Barack Obama authorized earlier this year to a total of about 68,000. But Gates indicated his view is being affected by recent conversations with General McChrystal.
"I think General McChrystal makes the very valid point that how those forces behave toward the Afghans is clearly an important element of that," he said.
McChrystal issued a directive soon after taking command two months ago ordering the U.S. and NATO troops under his command to do more to avoid causing Afghan civilian casualties. Gates indicated that is important, but he is not sure whether it will be enough to make a significant further troop increase advisable.
"So far, I think that most Afghans see us as there to help them and see us as their partner. I just worry that we don't know what the size of the international presence, military presence might be that would begin to change that. And I think we need to move with considerable care in that respect," he said.
Secretary Gates says any troop increase would have to come only after consultations with allies and with the Afghan government, and would be limited, at least for a while, by the U.S. troop commitment in Iraq, which will not be significantly reduced until well into next year.
Still, Gates says General McChrystal is free to ask for whatever he thinks he needs to accomplish his mission - to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for international terrorists and to stabilize the country enough for the Afghan government and its security forces to establish their authority.
"General McChrystal has been told very directly by both the Chairman and by me that we want him to ask for what he thinks he needs. I think you have to, you have to, allow your commanders that freedom. And so we're not talking about caps. What we're waiting for is his assessment and then to see what options or courses of action he puts forward," he added.
Several civilian experts General McChrystal invited to Afghanistan to help with his assessment have said they believe he needs more troops, but officials say the general has not yet made a decision.
Secretary Gates called the security situation in Afghanistan "a mixed picture," and acknowledged the Taliban has established a presence in some areas. He says the key to long-term progress is to convince ordinary Afghans to support the government and turn against the insurgents. He says General McChrystal's report will include an assessment of how to do that, including how to balance between securing population centers and pursuing the Taliban and other insurgents in remote areas.
The secretary has said he wants to see at least some progress in Afghanistan within a year, but he says defeating the country's several insurgent groups will take longer, and building a relatively stable and prosperous society will take even more time.
"I think you have to differentiate between institution building and economic development on the one hand, and defeating the Taliban al-Qaida on the other. And I think the latter can be accomplished in a few years," he said.
Secretary Gates says the broader development of Afghanistan will take decades, but he notes that U.S. allies are committed to helping the country with those non-military projects for the long term.
Secretary Gates also said he believes the U.S., NATO and Afghan security effort is creating conditions for a credible presidential election next week in all parts of the country. He says there will be more than 1,300 additional polling places compared to the last election five years ago, and there are several million more registered voters.