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Military hastening plans for Afghanistan

New brigade of 3,500 soldiers could be deployed by year’s end

WASHINGTON – Senior U.S. military officials are developing plans to speed the deployment of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, including a possible move to pull the next brigade due to go to Iraq this fall and send it to Afghanistan instead.

President Bush already has committed to beefing up the U.S. presence in Afghanistan next year. But Defense Department officials said the recent efforts by military planners would speed that process and could allow the new brigade of 3,500 soldiers to deploy there before the end of this year.

The change in planning comes amid growing violence in southern and eastern Afghanistan, prompting U.S. commanders overseeing operations in the country as well as other military brass to push the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to re-evaluate troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Sunday, nine U.S. soldiers were killed at a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan during a sophisticated offensive by hundreds of insurgent fighters, the largest single American loss of life in Afghanistan in three years.

The U.S. and Afghan troops who manned the outpost have been ordered to abandon the base, a NATO spokesman said Wednesday.

In an indication of the shifting U.S. troop deployment effort, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference that he expected to be able to recommend a resumption of withdrawals from Iraq in September.

“I won’t go so far as to say that progress in Iraq, from a military perspective, has reached a tipping point, or it is irreversible; it has not and it is not,” said Mullen, who this weekend returned from a weeklong trip to both theaters. “But security is unquestionably better and remarkably better.”

The Bush administration’s buildup of forces in Iraq, known as the troop “surge,” is due to end this month. After that, the next brigade to be withdrawn, the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, is scheduled to depart in the late fall. Another unit, the 2nd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, was scheduled to take its place.

But if plans change, the 2nd Brigade instead would be assigned to train Afghan security forces. Such a change in mission could postpone the unit’s deployment until early next year. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he did not intend to extend combat tours or shorten home stays to boost troop levels, as was done during last year’s surge in Iraq. Instead, Pentagon officials are looking for other ways to increase units.

“We are clearly working very hard to see if there are opportunities to send additional forces sooner rather than later,” said Gates, appearing with Mullen at the news conference.

There now are 36,000 American troops in Afghanistan, including 3,500 Marines who are due to leave this fall.

U.S. commanders have repeatedly said they need as many as three more brigades, or about 10,000 troops.

The attack in Wanat on Sunday heightened already grave concerns among senior military brass about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

Mullen said the outpost in Wanat had too-few personnel – about 45 American and 25 Afghan soldiers – to deal with the size of the insurgent force that attacked on Sunday. One in five of the U.S. defenders was killed, and nearly half the survivors were wounded.