WASHINGTON - A day after President Barack Obama ordered additional troops to Afghanistan, the top U.S. commander there said he may need still more troops in coming months to bolster an intensified war effort that could last as long as five additional years.
Gen. David McKiernan plans to use the 17,000 additional soldiers and Marines being sent by Obama to try to break an impasse in fighting with the Taliban in the southern part of the country.
"What this allows us to do is change the dynamics of the security situation, predominantly in southern Afghanistan, where we are at best stalemated," McKiernan said.
The new deployments, raising the overall U.S. troop level to about 55,000, will fulfill military needs through Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election, McKiernan said. But he held open the possibility of additional troop requests.
McKiernan said that last year, he had forecast the need for an additional 30,000 troops for 2009 and beyond. The deployment of 17,000 troops ordered Tuesday, combined with the earlier assignment of about an Army brigade of 3,500 from the 10th Mountain Division, provides two-thirds of the forecast need, he said.
The remaining number, about 10,000, could be sought later this year or next year if military reviews indicate the need for them, McKiernan said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that the administration would not consider further troop requests until after completion of a strategy review in April. Gates, who is traveling to a NATO meeting in Poland, also said he plans to press allies this week to follow the U.S. example and do more in Afghanistan.
McKiernan acknowledged limits to how many foreign forces the Afghan people would tolerate. But he said the troops could help stabilize the country while local and international officials work on governance, economic development and security force increases.
"I would like to reinforce what the president has said, that this is not going to be won by military forces alone," McKiernan said.
He also cautioned that the additional forces do not represent a troop surge but an intensified war effort that may last for years.
"This is not a temporary force uplift. It's going to need to be sustained for some period of time," he said, defining the period as "the next three to four or five years."
He described the extremist insurgency as resilient and said the U.S. and its allies do not have enough forces in the southern part of the country, the stronghold of the Taliban.
McKiernan said U.S. commanders also remain troubled by extremists in sanctuaries along the Afghan-Pakistan border and expressed concern about this week's cease-fire between Islamabad and militants in Pakistan's Swat Valley, about 100 miles from the nation's capital.
"We're going to watch this very carefully and see how that does affect the insurgency on the Afghan side of the border," McKiernan said.