WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said any new U.S. forces President Barack Obama sends to Afghanistan could move into the country swiftly, despite logistical hassles that force almost all major deliveries of troops and supplies to go by air.
His wording suggested that, as expected, Obama will soon approve an increase in the already record U.S. force of 68,000 in Afghanistan. Months of deliberations over the flagging war are ending, with an announcement of a substantial troop increase expected in the next two weeks.
"I anticipate that as soon as the president makes his decision, we can probably begin flowing some forces pretty quickly after that," Gates said.
Gates and Vice Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the coming troop infusion is a bigger logistical challenge than the Iraq "surge," which added forces at the rate of roughly one brigade a month.
Afghanistan's forbidding terrain, lack of roads and other infrastructure and the fact that forces and equipment are still tied up in Iraq are all complicating factors.
"It's not going to be a brigade a month because of the infrastructure piece, the ability to receive it, literally, in Afghanistan, as well as all the other moving parts," Mullen said.
Gates and Mullen spoke at a Pentagon news conference.
Gates did not directly answer a question about whether the United States could hold out more troops as leverage toward reform of Afghanistan's shaky, corrupt government. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, inaugurated Thursday for a second five-year term, wants more U.S. help to secure his country against the Taliban-led insurgency.
"My personal view is that you do have to exercise what leverage you have," Gates said.
Earlier Thursday, Germany's defense chief told Gates his country will maintain its military commitment in Afghanistan, but did not promise to increase it for now. Germany's force of more than 4,000 is among the largest from any nation apart from the United States.
Germany will hold off on any decision about adding troops to Afghanistan at least until the United States makes a move, German Minister of Defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said following meetings at the Pentagon.
"We are, eagerly probably as you all are, waiting for the president's speech and ... waiting for the new concept, the new strategic ideas from our American friends," Guttenberg said.
Gates replied that the United States "can use all the help we can get" from European nations and others in Afghanistan. But he said asking for anything specific is premature until Obama announces his plans.
Mullen told a military audience earlier Thursday that the administration and military have been engaged in a "healthy debate" on what to do in Afghanistan that goes beyond troop levels.
"This isn't all just about the military. This isn't all just about the number of troops because we can't do it alone," Mullen told National Guard soldiers just outside of Washington in Maryland.
Besides providing security in Afghanistan, "we have to have a development plan. We have to have a governance plan that goes hand-in-glove as we go forward," Mullen said.
On Capitol Hill, a group of more liberal House Democrats who oppose a hefty troop increase, including Reps. Dave Obey of Wisconsin and John Murtha of Pennsyvlania, proposed that the president impose a war tax each year to pay for operations. The bill would exempt service members and their families.
Meanwhile, Republicans accused Obama of dragging his heels.
"Our military believes they can succeed, but are unsure whether Washington will give them the opportunity," House Republicans said in a letter to be sent to Obama on Friday.