CHICAGO — The Pentagon's chief said Thursday he could send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year than he'd initially expected and is considering increasing the number of soldiers in the Army.
Both issues reflect demands on increasingly stressed American forces tasked with fighting two wars.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates' comments came during a short visit to Fort Drum in upstate New York – an Army post that that he said has deployed more soldiers to battle zones over the last 20 years than any other unit. Two Fort Drum brigades are headed to Iraq in coming months, and a third is currently in Afghanistan.
Asked about Afghanistan by one soldier, Gates said, "I think there will not be a significant increase in troop levels in Afghanistan beyond the 68,000, at least probably through the end of the year. Maybe some increase, but not a lot."
So far, the Obama administration has approved sending 68,000 troops to Afghanistan by the end of 2009, including 21,000 that were added this spring.
The White House has wanted to wait until the end of the year before deciding whether to deploy more, but Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that Gates does not want to discourage his new commander in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, from taking a frank look at how many troops he needs.
McChrystal, who took over as commander for all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan last month, is expected to advise Washington in 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 troop requirements in Afghanistan, and will soon provide that report to Gates.
The former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, had told Obama that he needed an additional 10,000 troops, beyond the 68,000. The White House had put off that decision until the end of this year.
Gates and other military leaders have said they are reluctant to send many more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, because of concerns that a large American footprint there could appear to Afghans as an occupying force.
During a question-and-answer session with soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, Gates also said he is looking at beefing up the Army with more troops. He did not say by how many, or what the plan would 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., filed legislation to authorize the hiring of 30,000 new active-duty Army soldiers for the 2010 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. In a statement, Lieberman called it a "critical first step toward making sure that our military leaders can execute their strategy while also reducing the heavy strain on our soldiers and their families."
Most of the 200 soldiers in Thursday's short town hall-style meeting are headed to Iraq later this fall. Their commander, Maj. Gen. Mike Oates, returned from his third tour in Iraq only 50 days ago and said he is working to easing stress on soldiers and their family members who have faced a seemingly revolving door of deployments since 2001.
"What we're trying to do is help everybody receive this stress and deal with it better," Oates told reporters. "And there's a lot of room for growth there."
Gates stopped at Fort Drum on his way to Chicago, where he gave a feisty speech Thursday evening hammering Congress for trying to tack on billions of dollars for additional F-22 fighter jets to the Pentagon's 2010 spending plan.
Troop safety remained on Gates' mind, however, as he told a friendly audience of the Economic Club of Chicago that high Army suicide rates "are a reflection of the stress on the force."
Fifty-one soldiers have killed themselves since March 1, the Army reported Thursday. Still, that indicates a tapering of the extremely high numbers of suicides in January and February, when 41 soldiers killed themselves amid intense Army efforts to stem the deaths.
"My guess is, ultimately the solution to this problem is where our soldiers have more time at home, where there's less stress and where we are not putting people through four and five rotations in incredibly stressful situations, where it's in Iraq or Afghanistan," Gates said.
He also took about 15 minutes of questions from the friendly audience, during which he repeated his belief that the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be closed as President Barack Obama has promised. He also said anew that Pentagon lawyers are looking at whether gay troops who are outed by hostile colleagues can be protected from military discharge until Congress changes the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" law.