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ARLINGTON, Va. — Pentagon officials say they have little desire to move beyond a maximum force size of 68,000 servicemembers deployed to Afghanistan as authorized by President Barack Obama, despite calls for more help from commanders on the ground.

But some wiggle room may be coming.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that he is likely to decide soon whether to temporarily increase the base size of the Army by 30,000 troops, as he awaits force level recommendations from the commanding four-star general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal. Additionally, some specialized combat troops still in Iraq by the August 2010 deadline to leave there may be transferred to the other war, Gates said.

"We’ll see what Gen. McChrystal recommends," Gates told a town hall gathering at Fort Drum, N.Y., home of the 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams of 10th Mountain Division, which will soon head to Iraq. "But I think there will not be a significant increase in troop levels in Afghanistan beyond the 68,000. At least, probably, through the end of the year. Maybe some increase, but not a lot."

Gates said he did not foresee that many of the troops scheduled to deploy this winter to Iraq on 12-month tours would later be transferred to Afghanistan.

"I suspect most of the units in Iraq who are not there for a full year are more likely to come home than anything else," Gates said. "The President has authorized a total of 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. We have pretty well identified what those units are at this point."

But, Gates added, there’s a caveat.

"The reason I’m being cautious is that there may be some specific specialties or specialized units that might be transferred," he said. "But I think in terms of large formations, I would expect them to come back to the U.S."

Months of rumblings about the potential need to expand the U.S. force in Afghanistan grew louder within days of the July 2 opening of Operation Khanjar, a major operation led by U.S. Marines in Helmand province.

Commanders of the offensive quickly called for more help, particularly from Afghan forces, The New York Times reported.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced a parliamentary committee this week that questioned whether the United Kingdom had committed enough troops and helicopters to the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But Morrell suggested that further U.S. troop increases would be a tall order for the Pentagon to fill without help from NATO partners.

"That’s going to be a real challenge," he said. "You know, trainers have been at a premium. We’ve had to contribute more of them than we would like because it’s been difficult getting them from our allies."

Additionally, Morrell noted that the Obama administration had already accelerated the original 5-year plan to train 134,000 Afghan forces to two-and-a-half years.

"So if we are serious about this," Morrell said, "if the world is committed to this, it’s going to require all of us accepting additional responsibility and burden in this area, both in terms of trainers and in terms of financial contributions."


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