Describing Afghanistan as the greatest military challenge for the US, Defence Secretary Robert Gates has indicated that missile strikes in Pakistan will continue to root out al-Qaeda members based across the porous border.
"There is little doubt that our greatest military challenge right now is Afghanistan," Gates said in his first comments to the Congress as President Barack Obama's defence secretary on Tuesday.
Later, in response to a question from the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Senator Carl Levin, he said missile strikes in Pakistan will continue in an effort to root out Al Qaeda members who have based themselves across the border from Afghanistan.
"Both president Bush and President Obama have made clear that we will go after Al Qaeda wherever Al Qaeda is. And we will continue to pursue this," he said.
Asked by Levin if Pakistan is aware of this continued pursuit, Gates replied simply, "Yes, sir".
And in one of the clearest indications of the military's plan to add troops in Afghanistan, Gates outlined a deployment of two brigades by spring and a third by late summer.
John McCain, defeated Republican presidential candidate who was instrumental in pushing for a troop surge in Iraq, warned that a troop increase in Afghanistan may not achieve the same results.
Gates himself noted that increased military presence must be accompanied by non-military solutions if progress is to be made in the war.
"While this will undoubtedly be a long and difficult fight, we can attain what I believe should be among our strategic objectives: an Afghan people who do not provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda, reject the rule of the Taliban, and support the legitimate government that they elected and in which they have a stake," Gates said.
Regarding withdrawal from Iraq, Gates said the military is planning various options, with the quickest withdrawal being the 16-month period - ending in May 2010 - outlined by Obama when he was running for president.
"As our military presence decreases over time, we should still expect to be involved in Iraq on some level for many years to come - assuming a sovereign Iraq continues to seek our partnership," he said.
"The stability of Iraq remains critical to the future of the Middle East, a region that multiple presidents of both political parties have considered vital to the national security of the United States," Gates added.