RELATED STORY:Gates meets with Karzai

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — Defense Secretary Robert Gates landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday, determined to see firsthand if the U.S.-led military operation is ready to accept an influx of 30,000 troops within six months.

Along with the initial surge of 1,500 Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., who will begin arriving next week, the secretary on Friday signed the deployment orders for approximately 16,000 troops to begin arriving in February through April.

The secretary said he wanted assurances that U.S. forces in country were ready to handle the logistical demands of those troops and their equipment.

“Most of them live in tents anyway,” said Gates. “I will say this, we would not have agreed to the shorter timeline if logistics folks and the folks out here hadn’t thought it was possible. It’s going to be a heavy lift, there’s no question about it.”

Gates also said he wants an early report card on the first hundred few hundred M-ATVs that have arrived in country. The Pentagon has ordered more than 6,000 of the lighter, faster versions of the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle.

Perhaps no leg of Obama’s strategy has been criticized as much as its reliance on having a capable Afghan force to which the U.S. could begin handing over security responsibilities by July 2011. It is a basic tenet of counterinsurgency operations and was the topic of open criticism from members of Congress last week.

But attrition rates, or early troop losses, have been been a problem for the Afghans, and they’re higher in heavy combat areas, he said.

“The reason is, there aren’t enough of them and they basically fight until they die, or they go AWOL because there’s nobody to rotate in behind them so that they can get a break,” said Gates.

To stem that trend, the U.S. and Afghan governments are beginning to offer combat bonus pay and other incentives for Afghan soldiers and giving raises to Afghan police. Both groups recently were found to be receiving less income than the Taliban was providing its fighters.

The secretary said he intends to ask U.S. field commanders “about their view of the way forward,” following the president’s speech last week, particularly their assessment of an “accelerated growth” of the ranks of Afghan soldiers and police.

Gates was scheduled to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss the implementation of President Barack Obama’s strategy and assure that the administration’s July 2011 timeline to begin withdrawing some of the U.S. troop surge was not a sign that Americans were already looking for a way out.

“We intend to be their partner for a long time to come,” he said.

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