Bush promises more troops for Afghanistan

George Bush today promised to send more troops to Afghanistan after his departure from the White House next year, whatever the status of troop withdrawals from Iraq.

The pledge, delivered at a Nato summit in Bucharest, would add a “significant” number of troops in Afghanistan in 2009, the Pentagon chief, Robert Gates, told reporters.

Gates said he expected the next president – Democrat or Republican – to honour the commitment. “I think that no matter who is elected they will want to be successful in Afghanistan,” Gates said. “I think this was a pretty safe thing for him to say.”

Gates gave no further details on how many troops would be deployed in Afghanistan. The US has about 31,000 troops in the country.

The offer comes at a time when attention in Washington is focused on the US military presence in Iraq and there are renewed concerns about the effectiveness of Iraqi government forces.

General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq, is to testify before Congress next week about security on the ground, and whether Iraqi forces are capable of taking over as US forces are reduced.

He is expected to call for a freeze on withdrawals from Iraq after July, which would mean maintaining at least 130,000 US forces there into early next year.

That could complicate the Pentagon’s efforts to meet requests from US commanders in Afghanistan for additional forces, as well as yesterday’s commitment from the president.

US commanders say there are not enough forces on the ground in Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban and train Afghan security forces. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, warned this week that it was impossible to consolidate security gains in Afghanistan without more troops.

Last week’s fighting in Basra has underscored the fragility of recent security improvements in Iraq, and the instability of the government of Nouri al-Maliki.

More than 1,000 Iraqi army and police deserted or refused to take part in last week’s offensive against followers of the rebel Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, it emerged today.

Officials in Basra told the Associated Press that the mutiny in Basra involved a full infantry battalion belonging to the 4th Iraqi Division numbering about 500 soldiers and 400 police. The defectors turned over weapons and vehicles to Sadr’s militias, the officials said.

Meanwhile, the New York Times, quoting Iraqi military officials, reported that as many as 100 officers refused to join the fighting in Basra. However, it said the majority of deserters were new recruits.

Also today, Maliki appeared to retreat from Thursday’s threat of a crackdown against Sadr’s Mahdi army, renewing his offer of an amnesty to fighters who gave up their weapons.