When Robert Gates, the American defence secretary, travelled to Texas in late August, it was ostensibly to visit the Joint Strike Fighter, a US-UK project to build a modern fighter jet. After viewing the latest avionics technology, he moved on to the small town of Greenville, where he looked at Beechcraft turboprops, light aircraft commonly used as corporate ferries. These simple aeroplanes may seem an unlikely tool in US strategy in Afghanistan but as the search mounts for alternatives to his own commanders call for up to 40,000 more troops, Gates believes the aircraft have a big part to play. In what some are calling his Kennedy moment a reference to JFKs choices over Vietnam Barack Obama, the president, is coming under intense pressure from his military to accede to the demand by General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, for more troops. At the same time, there is a growing view in Washington that counterinsurgency might no longer be a viable approach for dealing with the Taliban. Gates is among many who are not convinced about sending the extra troops, fearing it could galvanise opposition. He has argued for greater focus on detecting the roadside bombs that cause the overwhelming majority of soldiers deaths. He believes the 68,000 troops weve already committed to Afghanistan deserve the best protection we can get, so were sending more route clearance, ordnance disposal experts, medics and medevac capabilities as well as intelligence specialists to combat IEDs, explained Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman. Theyre the number one killer of US and coalition forces and we have to do all we can to protect our guys from this growing threat. In Iraq we increased force protection and traced the IED network to reduce the threat enormously and thats what we need to do in Afghanistan. That is where the planes come in. Some 28 MC-12 turboprops are being fitted out with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment. Gates told workers that they were saving lives on the battlefield, adding: The best solution isnt always the fanciest or the most expensive. The programme was among many issues discussed last week as the president held the first of five war councils to decide whether extra troops should be sent to Afghanistan. Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, described the three-hour discussion as robust, with the president hearing from 17 people. We had an opportunity to get a fairly in-depth intelligence assessment on whats going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said. They also considered the changes in both countries since March, when Obama had decided to send an additional 21,000 troops. A decision is expected in two weeks on McChrystals recommendation to add up to 40,000 to this tally and it is widely thought the president will compromise, perhaps by sending half the number requested. There will be at least some troop uplift, said a Nato diplomat. McChrystal was only appointed by Obama a few months ago and was commissioned to shake things up and thats what hes doing. It would be inconceivable for Obama to then say thank you for your views and ignore them. A senior administration official who attended the war council said Joe Biden, the vice-president, had suggested scaling back troops in Afghanistan and concentrating on the use of drones to attack AlQaeda. This would mean more focus on Pakistan which, some argued, is the real national security threat as Al-Qaedas base. Last week the countrys military intelligence chief, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, flew to Washington for talks. Officials said afterwards that Pakistan had agreed to launch a long-delayed operation to send troops into the border region of Waziristan, believed to have become a base for Al-Qaeda. Congress approved a bill on Wednesday for a five-year $7.5 billion (4.7 billion) aid package to Pakistan. One of the conditions was a sustained commitment to combating terrorist groups. But with no possibility of sending US troops into Pakistan beyond advisers and special forces already secretly there, McChrystal and others insisted the focus must remain on stabilising Afghanistan. Whether or not consensus can be achieved inside the White House, there are doubts across the political spectrum about the wisdom of sending more troops. The soldiers deserve exactly what it takes to get the mission done, John Kerry, Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, told CNN. But the question is, given the absence of governance in Afghanistan and the fact that Al-Qaeda has been largely driven out of Afghanistan, exactly what that mission ought to be. Peter Galbraith, the former United Nations deputy special representative to Afghanistan, who was sacked last week after speaking out on the election fraud, drew parallels with 1963, when Kennedy faced his dilemma over Vietnam. Obama clearly has doubts about sending more troops, he said. Its his Kennedy moment a young, untested president being pushed by all his military to send more troops and I hope he will make the same decision as Kennedy not to send more. How will you have success with a corrupt, ineffective government that most Afghans view as abusing power, and now compounding that is the illegitimacy of its election? General Sir David Richards, new head of the British Army, last night backed the calls for more troops. In an interview in todays Sunday Telegraph, he said: If Al-Qaeda and the Taliban believe they have defeated us, what next? Would they stop at Afghanistan? He said Pakistan is a tempting target because of its nuclear weapons and that is a terrfying prospect. Even if only a few of those weapons fell into their hands ... they would use them. (The Sunday Times)