WASHINGTON - Up to three more combat brigades could be available to go to Afghanistan beginning next spring, in answer to repeated calls from commanders for more soldiers, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday.

Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that more forces could not be committed immediately without extending combat tours or changing troop deployments. But, in response to prodding from the committee's chairman, Carl Levin (D., Mich.), Gates said they probably could go in the spring and summer of 2009.

Levin objected to a statement in Gates' prepared testimony that said it now may be "possible" to do militarily what must be done in Afghanistan - which has been a secondary priority to the Iraq war for years.

"It seems to me that is just simply not good enough," Levin said. "To say it's possible that we'll do what we must do in Afghanistan does not represent the kind of commitment of forces or resources that our commanders on the ground are asking us for in Afghanistan."

In response, Gates offered the likely troop buildup next spring but cautioned that the next president will have to weigh how large a U.S. force should be sent to Afghanistan, given that the population does not readily welcome foreign forces there.

"I think we need to think about how heavy a military footprint the United States ought to have in Afghanistan," said Gates, or "are we better off channeling resources into building and expanding the size of the Afghan national army as quickly as possible."

The military shortfall in Afghanistan has been a common complaint from commanders.

While the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has grown from fewer than 21,000 two years ago to more than 31,000 today, the senior U.S. general there said last week that he needed at least 10,000 more ground troops, beyond the 3,700 Army soldiers due early next year.

An Army brigade ranges from 1,500 to 3,000 soldiers.

The requirements include more helicopters, combat troops, trainers, and other support forces. But with 151,000 soldiers committed in Iraq, the United States has not had the troops for Afghanistan.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has noted that in Afghanistan "we do what we can; in Iraq we do what we must."

Gates sketched out a complex challenge in Afghanistan in the coming months, where he said the United States must listen more carefully to Afghan leaders and work harder to avoid civilian casualties, which inflame the population against forces they may see as occupiers.

It will be important to bolster local and provincial governments without creating warlords or other militias in the process.

In other remarks, Gates signaled a turning point in Iraq, saying the Unietd States has now entered the endgame there. But he said the progress should not prompt U.S. leaders to abandon caution.

Both he and Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the panel that military commanders believed they needed to move cautiously as they cut troop levels in Iraq.

"We do not want to jeopardize the gains that we made," Cartwright said. "We paid a high price for them."

Interpol to Assist Afghan Police

When the Afghan

Taliban engineered a prison break in the southern city of Kandahar in June, nearly 900 inmates escaped, but

not a single one had been fingerprinted or photographed.

Interpol,

the international police organization, has launched an effort to help Afghanistan boost its police capabilities.

Currently, no Afghan

police offices in the country's 34 provinces can take fingerprints and send them to Kabul to be entered into international databases, said B.S. Sardar Awa, head of Afghanistan's Interpol office. Only police in Kabul are

able to submit information to Interpol.

Following the visit

of Interpol Secretary- General Ronald K. Noble to Kabul last week, Awa said he hoped to soon equip five to seven provinces with both fingerprinting and DNA-testing equipment.

The Interpol initiative

could help alert police around the world when their wanted criminals are captured in the Afghan-Pakistan region.

An increasing number

of terror plots meant to be unleashed in Europe are being traced back to Pakistan's tribal areas near the Afghan border, where extremists get training and weapons.

- Associated Press