WASHINGTON (AFP) – The Pentagon said Tuesday that any sizeable increase in much-needed US forces in Afghanistan will depend on deeper troop cuts in Iraq than currently planned.
Military commanders, worried about a persistent and growing Taliban challenge, have said they require up to three more brigades, or about 10,000 troops, to fill gaps in a NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
But Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell made clear that relief in Afghanistan can only come from Iraq, where US forces now find themselves embroiled in a bloody struggle with Shiite militias.
“We really have to get down in Iraq below 15 brigade combat teams for us to consider adding multiple additional brigades to Afghanistan,” Morrell told reporters.
“So, not until we get to that point can we even consider that prospect,” he said.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates had said after a summit of NATO leaders in Bucharest last month that he expects the United States to make a significant addition of its forces in Afghanistan next year.
Gates also has expressed hope that US force levels in Iraq can be drawn down below the 15 brigades, or roughly 130,000 troops, that will be left there when the last of the “surge” forces return home at the end of July.
But General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, has insisted that there be no further troop cuts until he assesses the impact on security of the current drawdown.
After a sharp decline at the peak of the surge, levels of violence appear to be on the rise again in Iraq.
The US military death toll spiked in April to 52, its highest point in seven months, as US forces fought Shiite militias in Sadr City, a bastion of forces loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Petraeus will be responsible for both Iraq and Afghanistan after he is confirmed to head the US Central Command. He is expected to assume that role in mid-September.
Currently, there are 158,000 US troops in Iraq. The United States has 34,000 troops in Afghanistan, 16,000 of which are under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).