The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan is putting new pressure on Defense Secretary Robert Gates to change course.
Mr. Gates travels to Europe this week to ask NATO allies again for more troops to help fight what has become a classic insurgency in Afghanistan, saying he doesn't want to let allies off too easy.
But Democratic lawmakers, calling Afghanistan "the forgotten war," are now pushing Gates to send more American forces to pick up the slack in the war-torn country, where an increase in suicide bombings and other violence threatens to undo progress made since US troops first invaded in 2001.
Gates has continually pushed NATO to send more troops. But as the mission there looks more like combat and less like the peacekeeping operation that many allies had signed up for, Gates has had trouble recruiting more assistance.
"It is a continuing effort with our NATO allies to get them to step up to the plate," Gates conceded to House lawmakers on Tuesday.
Gates wants more than 3,000 new trainers, three infantry battalions, and dozens of helicopters for the fight.
Democratic lawmakers called Gates and his top uniformed adviser, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Capitol Hill Tuesday to raise awareness of the problems that have been mounting in Afghanistan for more than a year.
With the focus on Iraq, the Bush administration has taken its eyes off of Afghanistan, Democrats say. Currently about 50,000 coalition forces are in Afghanistan, of which about 25,000 are American troops, mostly from the US Army. About 165,000 US troops are stationed in Iraq.
"Afghanistan has been the forgotten war," said Rep. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri, who leads the House Armed Services Committee. "Opportunities have been squandered, and now we're clearly seeing the effects. We must reprioritize and shift needed resources from Iraq to Afghanistan."
Admiral Mullen, who became chairman of the Joint Chiefs in October, told the panel that overall violence in Afghanistan is up 27 percent over one year ago with "a significant increase" in the number of suicide bombings. In Helmand Province in the south, where the Taliban has a strong foothold, violence has risen more than 60 percent, he said. And support for the Taliban in the southwestern part of the country is triple what it was in 2004.
The US military, however, was already stretched in Iraq when President Bush called for a 'surge' of American forces in January and more than 30,000 additional troops were sent there. Although security has improved in some areas in Iraq, the military is still mired in the mission, preventing serious discussion about Afghanistan, analysts say.
That leaves little room for sending additional US forces there. "In Afghanistan, we do what we can," Mullen said. "In Iraq, we do what we must."
Asked by Mr. Skelton to elaborate, Mullen said Iraq is the military's priority given the personnel and equipment resources that are available. "We have resourced Afghanistan to the level that we think we can right now, given that balance," Mullen said.
Last week, Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway proposed sending as many as 15,000 marines to Afghanistan to help stabilize security. Analysts and military officials thought the idea had merit. But it was leaked to the press by a likely critic of the plan, and then painted negatively, dooming its prospects, analysts say. Ultimately, Mullen recommended against the plan and Gates ruled it out, at least for now.
Gates's reluctance to send more American forces to Afghanistan stems mostly from wanting to negotiate a better deal with NATO allies, though politics plays a role, too, analysts say.
"I don't think this administration wants to give the impression that things are worse in Afghanistan and therefore we have to send more troops," says Michele Flournoy, president and cofounder of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.
Ms. Flournoy says it is better to send forces there now than later – and increase diplomatic and economic reconstruction efforts – otherwise the next administration inherits a bigger problem in Afghanistan. "My concern is there is no such thing as benign neglect when it comes to ongoing operations," she says.
For his part, Gates appears to agree. A former director of the CIA in the 1990s, Gates said he believes Afghanistan is a crucial mission and acknowledged that the US already "turned its back" on the country once after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. Four years later, Al Qaeda mounted the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
"One of the lessons that I think we have is that if we abandon these countries, once we are in there and engaged, there is a very real possibility that we will pay a higher price in the end," Gates said.