The Pentagon is unable to send additional combat brigades to Afghanistan this year because of constraints imposed by the war in Iraq, leaving a shift of forces to the next president, a spokesman said Wednesday.
US commanders in Afghanistan have requested three more combat brigades, or about 10,000 troops, to deal with growing insurgent violence in the eastern and southern parts of the country.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said improving security conditions in Iraq have raised the prospect for freeing up troops for Afghanistan next year, but Iraq remains the Bush administration’s top priority.
"It looks as though this government is going to work to provide additional forces for Afghanistan next year," Morrell said. "How many, whether it is the three additional brigades that the commanders want I think is a question for the next administration."
Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has vowed to make Afghanistan the top priority if elected. His Republican rival, John McCain, argues that success in Iraq is more important, but has said he would send more troops to Afghanistan.
President George W. Bush met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the military chiefs in a secure conference room at the Pentagon to review progress on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Morrell said efforts were underway to figure out what forces or military assets could be sent to Afghanistan in the near-term.
Whether additional forces can be diverted from Iraq to Afghanistan "is going to be the fundamental issue before the military leaders, the civilian leaders in this building in the coming months," he said.
But Morrell said providing additional combat brigades would require a more rapid drawdown of US forces from Iraq or the mobilization of guard and reserve troops.
"Obviously we don’t have the means to send three BCTs (brigade combat teams) to Afghanistan at this very moment, without making some very hard choices," he said.
"You can’t snap your fingers and make this happen."
Morrell’s comments were striking because they came just a week after Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed vivid concern about the rising violence and deteriorating security in Afghanistan.
Gates said the Pentagon was looking for ways to send additional forces to Afghanistan "sooner rather than later." There are currently 37,000 US troops in Afghanistan, versus 148,000 in Iraq.
"As to what that ‘sooner’ means, if it were possible to do it this year we would certainly look to doing it this year," Morrell said.
"But those are among the things that are being discussed right now. What is possible? What additional forces can be provided and how soon?"
Morrell also sought to cast the situation in Afghanistan as less dire than portrayed in the media, telling reporters that Gates believed it was "a mixed picture."
"The secretary has heard from commanders on the ground, who tell him that the enemy action that we are seeing in various parts of Afghanistan are disconnected from one another," he said.
"So there is no cohesive enemy offensive that is threatening the Afghan government, but there clearly are problems, real problems, and more forces are needed to do that," he said.
Last week, however, Mullen portrayed the insurgency in Afghanistan as having grown stronger in sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Insurgents appeared better trained and were employing increasingly sophisticated tactics, he said.
According to Mullen, militant groups that previously had not operated together now appeared to be coming together.
The Pentagon’s apparent backtracking on Afghanistan coincided with an intensifying debate in the presidential campaign over whether US interests were greater in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Morrell defended the administration’s view that Iraq remain the top priority.
"That is the war we have focused on, that is the war we are now winning. And now that we have seen gains there, the dividends from those gains we are looking to see if they can be applied to Afghanistan. It’s a question of how soon," he said.