HEIDELBERG, Germany — The Army chief of staff would not confirm a report Friday that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has decided to slow the exodus of U.S. troops from Europe — but he said he believes it would be the right decision.

“I think it’s important for us. That’s all I’ll say about that,” said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., while visiting Heidelberg for a ceremony marking increased funding for Army family programs.

Casey said he’d previously spoken about the need to maintain an adequate presence in Europe, in part to engage with allies and “to expand our cultural awareness.”

His stance follows a news report from the Agence France-Presse that on Thursday quoted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, on the matter.

“Secretary Gates has made a decision about some of the forces in Europe — to slow down their return here,” Mullen said in Washington, D.C., according to the AFP report.

U.S. Army Europe officials said Friday they were unaware of any official decision by Gates to make changes in the planned drawdown, and that Gates, while in Heidelberg on Thursday for the Conference of the European Armies, had not mentioned it. But they said a slowdown of returning troops — if not stopping the drawdown — was something U.S. Army Europe commander Gen. David McKiernan welcomed.

“It’s a positive step toward what General McKiernan has been advocating,” said a high-ranking official who declined to be identified because of the politics involved in such a decision. “We’ve heard the same thing.”

USAREUR has asked that two combat brigades, originally planned to be returned to the U.S. in the next couple of years as part of Army transformation and rebasing, instead remain until 2012 or 2013, an official said.

“Why is it only a delay [instead of permanently keeping the brigades in Europe]? I don’t know that,” the official said.

The plan for the delay follows public comments from the head of the U.S. European Command and the commander of USAREUR and 7th Army that transformation, as planned, would lead to too few troops to carry out their “theater security cooperation” mission and could pose a security threat.

McKiernan said two weeks ago at the Pentagon that he wanted to keep four combat brigades — not two — in Germany. Specifically, he wanted to keep 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 Stryker Cavalry Regiment from Vilseck, Germany.

He cited a “resurgent Russia,” a potential for violence in Kosovo and unresolved energy issues near the Caspian Sea Basin as among “very valid reasons to be forward-present” in Europe.

McKiernan said he believed the Army should keep about 40,000 troops in Europe, down from 43,000 now stationed there. That’s some 20,000 fewer than there were three years ago and some 16,000 more than the plan for Europe envisioned when it was announced in 2003.

Gen. Bantz Craddock previously said that even with current troop strength it was difficult to fulfill European Command missions, and that claims on the command were expected to increase. He said with so many Europe-based troops deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, there were too few left to do training exercises and other engagements with foreign militaries, and that many had been canceled.

McKiernan on Friday declined to comment. But he mentioned in his remarks about the family programs that 45 percent of U.S. Army Europe troops currently are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

According to the AFP report, Mullen said Gates’ decision had been made after “the urging of commanders in Europe who said the risks of reducing the U.S. presence in Europe should be re-examined.”

Gates asks NATO for more resources in Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Europe’s generals this week that NATO needs to provide more troops, more helicopters and fewer national “caveats” that keep many soldiers from seeing combat in Afghanistan.

Unhappy with the allies’ reluctance to more fully contribute to the NATO-led mission, a sentiment based, in part, on a NATO meeting in the Netherlands this week, Gates said progress in Afghanistan could slip away unless Europe provided more resources.

“In Afghanistan, a handful of allies are paying the price and bearing the burdens of allies to create the secure environment necessary for economic development, building civic institutions, and establishing the rule of law. The failure to meet commitments puts the Afghan mission — and with it, the credibility of NATO — at real risk,” Gates said Thursday at the Conference of European Armies, an annual conference of chiefs of staff of European armies.

Gates didn’t name names but he said, “Simply stated, there are those members who fulfill their commitments, and those who do not.”

Gates also took aim at “caveats,” a variety of restrictions on where many countries’ troops may go and what they may do in Afghanistan, which he said puts NATO “at a sizable disadvantage.”

“The ‘strings’ attached to one nation’s forces unfairly burden others and have done real harm in Afghanistan,” he said. “As you know better than most people, brothers in arms achieve victory only when all march in step toward the sound of the guns,” Gates said.

Of 26 NATO members, four nations — Britain, Canada, the U.S. and the Netherlands — have borne the brunt of most of the fighting.

“I’m asking for your help to make caveats in NATO operations, wherever they are, as benign as possible, and better yet, to convince your national leaders to lift restrictions on field commanders that impeded their ability to succeed in critical missions,” Gates said.

Gates’ speech followed his urging earlier in the week at a NATO meeting of defense ministers to send more troops, trainers and equipment to Afghanistan. On Thursday, he reiterated his theme, saying that the alliance had more than 2 million people in its armed forces, “yet we struggle to maintain 23,000 non-U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”

And, he said, “the mightiest and wealthiest military alliance in the history of the world was unable to produce 16 helicopters needed by the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) commander.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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