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WASHINGTON — Military officials won’t be able to significantly increase troop levels in Afghanistan until next spring despite the need for more personnel there, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told lawmakers Tuesday.

Gates called the Afghanistan/Pakistan border the greatest potential terrorist threat to the United States in the world today, and said that he anticipates moving up to 20,000 military personnel into Afghanistan next year to help secure the region.

But he added that current deployment and training schedules will prevent moving those troops and the infrastructure needed to support them quicker, despite requests from both U.S. and NATO commanders on the ground for the extra help as quickly as possible.

"Without changing lengths of tours, we do not have the forces to send three additional brigade combat teams to Afghanistan at this point," he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I believe we will be able to meet that requirement, but we’ll meet it in the spring and summer rather than immediately."

Lawmakers pushed for drawdowns in Iraq and other options to get at least some U.S. forces into Afghanistan sooner, noting the deteriorating security there.

"Your testimony says it’s possible in the months to come to do militarily what we must do in both (Iraq and Afghanistan,)" said committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. "It seems to me that ‘possible’ simply is not good enough. It does not represent the kind of commitment of forces our commanders on the ground are asking for."

Gates and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright acknowledged that accelerating the drawdown schedule in Iraq could allow them to move some Army units into Afghanistan in the next few months, but emphasized it would not be the full three combat brigades requested.

Gates said he was encouraged by recent troop increases by other NATO countries. Germany plans to send another 1,000 troops, and Poland another 400 troops to Afghanistan in coming months.

Currently about 31,000 U.S. troops are working alongside nearly 31,000 coalition troops, according to Defense Department figures. However, Gates said he does not expect corresponding increases in NATO forces as the U.S. adds more troops in 2009.

Cartwright also noted that the Afghan Army now boasts about 80,000 "well-trained and ready-to-go" soldiers who lead about half of their joint combat operations with coalition forces, and the government has plans to dramatically increase the numbers of police in coming months.

Lawmakers expressed concerns about press reports Monday that Pakistani troops fired upon U.S. helicopters that crossed over the Afghan border, questioning how reliable the new Pakistani government will be in the fight against al-Qaida and Taliban forces in the region.

Gates offered no comments on the reported incident, instead noting positive progress in the historically combative relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But he also added that U.S. forces reserve the right to protect themselves and the country against terrorists wherever they are located.

On Tuesday President Bush met with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at the White House, calling the country an ally and affirming Pakistan’s "sovereign right and sovereign duty to protect your country."

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