Gates' word of the week while visiting Afghanistan: impatient


At a dinner party last night, the talk turned to the once forgotten war suddenly everybody has an opinion about: Afghanistan.

Marveling at the Marjah operation and how resoundingly praised it has been, someone remarked: "At least Afghanistan isn't as bad as Iraq was."

I replied, while shaking my head and knocking on the wood table, that the fight had only just begun. 

That eight years into the war we can describe it as just now getting started is a long and, some would say, sorry tale, but it's the message Defense Secretary Gates has been practically shouting from the rooftops. (That is, of course, as much as the man can given he speaks with a 12-inch voice a Kindergarten teacher would love.)

Traveling with him last week in the Middle East, including a stop in Afghanistan, the refrain the press corps heard over and over again is that people "ought not get too impatient." (And I think he was directing this at us reporters as much as he was the general public.) Gen. David Petraeus echoed that point this week on Capitol Hill.

During his stop in Afghanistan Gates repeatedly pointed out that only 6,000 of the 30,000 "surge" troops are in country yet. He cautioned about "leaning too far forward" and "reading too much into specific positive developments," and was dismissive of all the talk already about reconciliation with the Taliban. Overall, he seemed wary that the early success of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy would lead to an overdose of optimism among Americans - which is often followed by unrealistic expectations.

"It's very early yet and people stilll need to understand there is some very hard fighting, very hard days ahead," he said, adding "the early signs are encouraging but I worry that people will get too impatient and think things are better than they actually are."

Therein lies the trick for Obama's White House: sell the new strategy as successful without setting the stage for Joe Public (and Congress) to start kicking the back of the seat and asking "are we there yet?"