US PRESIDENT-ELECT Barack Obama is preparing to send at least 20,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan in a "surge" similar to the action that contributed to security improvements in Iraq.
His intention to shift the focus of the fight against terrorism to Afghanistan has been bolstered by Robert Gates' agreement to stay on as defence secretary.
Mr Gates is a strong believer in an Afghan surge, which would not only put thousands more boots on the ground, but involve negotiations with malleable branches of the Taliban.
It would also aim to increase co-operation with Iran and Pakistan, where some elements have supported the anti-Western insurgency.
The need for more US troops, in addition to the 32,000 already serving, has been accelerated by the Afghan presidential election next September, and the voter registration process that begins in the New Year, Mr Gates said.
"The most important objective for us for 2009 in Afghanistan is a successful election," he said at a meeting of defence ministers from the eight countries fighting in southern Afghanistan.
"One of the things we talked about was trying to surge as many forces as we can prior to the election, to try and provide a secure environment for the election."
The Pentagon chief, who has been in the position for two years, added that he wanted to send another three brigades of combat ground forces and an aviation brigade, beginning as early as next spring.
A Pentagon official said the plans were likely to be drawn up before Mr Obama took office on January 20. Most will be sent to the poppy-growing south, where the need for more Western forces is greatest, and where 8,000 British troops are fighting.
A spokesman said the final number was likely to be "well north of 20,000", and indicated that countries already fighting in the south would not face strong US demands to provide more troops.
Those would be directed at NATO participants not yet involved at the sharp end.
Defence department staff members are privately delighted that Mr Obama has chosen to retain a popular boss in the interests of stability. Mr Gates is expected to be introduced officially as part of an experienced and centrist national security team on Monday.
Over the weekend Mr Obama reiterated that he wanted to begin reducing the 146,000 US troops in Iraq as soon as he took office, saying he wanted to "shore up efforts" in Afghanistan.
During the election campaign, he said his administration would dispatch up to three more brigades to Afghanistan in 2009, on top of the brigade President George W Bush decided to send this January. Each brigade contains between 3,500 and 4,000 soldiers.
However, some estimates for the numbers needed to fight the Taliban are running much higher than the initial 20,000 foreseen by Mr Gates.
Some analysts believe Washington ultimately would need more than 100,000 troops to stabilise Afghanistan before the Afghan army was ready to take over security.(© Daily Telegraph, London)