Gates, Saudi King Meet at Airport

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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates meets briefly with Saudi Arabian King Abdullah at the Jiddah Airport.


Defense Secretary Robert Gates has had a busy day, starting in Afghanistan, then with a brief stop in Saudi Arabia, and ending the day in Bahrain. Gates is on a weeklong trip that's also taken him to Europe where he worked to shore up support for the White House strategy on Iraq. NPR's Guy Raz is traveling with Gates and joins us now from Bahrain. And Guy, first tell us about Afghanistan. Secretary Gates met with senior commanders there, and they say they need more troops.

GUY RAZ: That's exactly what they said, Michele. And, you know, really, this is Gates' first trip to Afghanistan as secretary, and that's what he was hearing from both U.S. and NATO commanders on the group there, that there are simply not enough troops in Afghanistan. Now, before I tell you why, let me just break down some numbers here. There are about 30,000 NATO troops in the country, that's NATO, and only about a third of those troops are American, so about 10,000.

But there are actually another 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan that are not under NATO command, and right now, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are asking the Pentagon to extend the service of at least one Army battalion, which is about 700 troops. And the reason why is because U.S. military intelligence officials and Pentagon officials are all expecting a pretty severe spring offensive launched by the Taliban.

NORRIS: But yet, the White House is calling for more troops. Is there any indication of where these troops will actually come from?

RAZ: Well, this is the big question, of course, and Gates is clearly implying that they could actually come from the United States. Now, he's going back to Washington with that recommendation. You know, it may not be an enormous number of troops, but it could very well be some number, you know, 2,000, 3,000 troops from the United States.

But basically, U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan, and of course Pentagon officials, are hoping those troops will come from NATO, because NATO has yet to send an additional 3,000 troops to Afghanistan. Now, they haven't done so in large part because of domestic political opposition.

NORRIS: The White House is paying a lot of attention to this region. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was just in Saudi Arabia. Was Secretary Gates there to reinforce her message or perhaps to bring a new one?

RAZ: Well, really, to push the White House strategy in Iraq, and as you say, to reinforce that message. And at least publicly, Michele, the Saudis are saying, you know, they're on board with what the White House calls its new Iraq initiative. But we know from senior defense officials that there are actually significant differences of opinion with the Saudis in how to achieve stability in Iraq.

I mean, the Saudis, who are Sunni Muslims, are looking at Iraq, with this ascendant Shiite Muslim political class, and they're worried because behind it all, they see the influence of Iran.

NORRIS: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Guy Raz, traveling with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Bahrain.


NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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