KABUL, Afghanistan — The top U.S. military commander in Europe said Thursday he is optimistic that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will halt the relocation of Europe-based troops to the continental United States.

Gen. Bantz J. Craddock was responding to news reports that Gates already had decided to stop an ongoing drawdown, which calls for two Army brigades to leave Germany by around 2010.

Craddock ordered a troop-to-task analysis to determine future troop needs in Europe. In June he forwarded the analysis and his recommendations to Gates.

“I’m optimistic,” Craddock said. “If [the news report] does portend a decision, I think it is a very good one. “Forward deployed forces provide habitual relationships that provide greater value in enduring relationships. That’s the difference.”

Craddock, who is also the supreme allied commander Europe, was traveling in Afghanistan with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

Shortly after taking command of the U.S. European Command and NATO’s military forces last December[/BODY], Craddock expressed concern that he did not have enough Europe-based forces to conduct ample bilateral and multilateral military engagements with U.S. allies.

The 1st Infantry Division was moved from Würzburg, Germany, to Fort Riley, Kan., in 2006 as part of a reduction in Army forces from 62,000 to about 43,000 in the past three years. Multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq have also lessened the ability of Europe-based troops to train with European allies.

Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. Army Europe, said last month he wanted to keep four combat brigades in Europe. Those include the Schweinfurt, Germany-based 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division; the Baumholder, Germany-based 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division; the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Italy, and the 2nd Cavalry (Stryker) Regiment, in Vilseck, Germany.

A final decision by Gates to freeze the drawdown will affect the approximately 100,000 total forces remaining in Europe, as well as their families and the workforce in the U.S. military communities.

“Regardless of what happens in terms of sizing, the key is there are going to be enduring main operating bases and non-enduring ones,” Craddock said. “We have to make sure those living in non-enduring ones still get the same quality-of-life advantages and same services … so they don’t feel second class.

“Second, we have to look at the future. We need a decision finally on how we are going to get arranged, and then decide if we have the right lay-down in these enduring locations, and then ensure the budgets and services fully support the quality of life commensurate with that [which] can be expected in the continental United States.”

Craddock said that forward-based troops are better able to train, work and bond with the militaries of U.S. allies in western and eastern Europe. Those would include newer, eastward U.S. allies such as those in Balkan nations and former Soviet states.

On the other hand, U.S.-based troops, Craddock said, encounter a learning curve whenever they deploy overseas to train with allies and support other regional security activities. Those forces can take up to two months at the start of a training rotation to learn the lay of the land and the culture and nuances of their international military partners.

“By the time you understand that and you have worked out the beginnings of a relationship, then it is time to depart [for the U.S.],” Craddock said. “And then for the next unit, it will be the same.”

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