BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (AP) – Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested yesterday that he is likely to urge President Bush to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight the resurgent Taliban.

Gates said U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have recommended an unspecified troop boost, and while he did not explicitly endorse the idea, he offered a rationale.

“I think it is important that we not let this success here in Afghanistan slip away from us and that we keep the initiative,” he told reporters traveling aboard his aircraft as it refueled here for a flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was to meet with King Abdullah. “There’s no reason to sit back and let the Taliban regroup,” Gates said.

There are approximately 24,000 U.S. troops here, of which about 11,000 serve under NATO command. Another increase would raise questions about the future course of a war which the United States is increasingly handing off to NATO forces.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the potential 2008 presidential candidate who just returned from a trip to the region, said commanders in Afghanistan told her they have “an urgent need” for about 2,300 more troops, including some who might be held in reserve.

“It would be tragic if we fail in Afghanistan because of an unwillingness to deploy a manageable size of additional troops to aid an important and willing ally during a time of true need,” she wrote in a letter to Gates. The letter was also signed by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who was also on the trip.

As described by U.S. military officers in Afghanistan, the Taliban already have regrouped, at least to the extent that they were able last year to launch vastly more attacks on U.S. and allied forces than in 2005. They have been particularly resurgent in the south and the east, along the Pakistan border.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said new troop commitments would further strain the U.S. military in the short run. But if done as part of a successful strategy against the Taliban, it might hasten the day when the U.S. military can withdraw its combat forces altogether, he said.

A U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan would come on top of Bush’s decision to send another 21,500 soldiers and Marines to Iraq over the coming four months. The two wars, each now longer than U.S. involvement in World War II, have stretched American land forces so thin that the Army and Marines are requesting tens of billions more in funding and have persuaded Bush to ask Congress to increase their size.

On Tuesday, Gates said before he arrived in Afghanistan for talks with U.S. and NATO commanders – as well as Afghan government officials – that he wanted to hear their views on what should be done to arrest the resurgence of the Taliban and provide the security needed to reconstruct the country.

U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime in October 2001. No longer a sanctuary for terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan has struggled to build a national government, attract international investment and rid the country of Taliban extremists who want to regain power.

“If the people who are leading the struggle out here believe that there is a need for some additional help to sustain the success that we’ve had, I’m going to be very sympathetic to that kind of a request,” Gates said.

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