Gates urges patience on Afghanistan
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday said he has total confidence in his Afghanistan war commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, but that he also supports President Barack Obama’s deliberative process despite cries to act quickly on the general’s request for more troops.
"I think it’s a matter of a few weeks," before the administration would approve a new way forward, Gates said, adding that it took the Bush administration three months to discuss whether to move forward with the so-called "surge" of troops in Iraq.
Gates faces pressure from lawmakers and his own uniformed military leaders wanting the White House to approve a significant troop increase estimated between 10,000 and 40,000 personnel, based on McChrystal’s assessment that the situation on the ground was worse than expected. Gates, who appeared on CNN’s "State of the Union" and ABC’s "This Week," also said that he was against putting any timetable on progress at this point.
"The notion of timelines and exit strategies and so on, frankly, I think would all be a strategic mistake. The reality is, failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States," Gates said in an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN’s "State of the Union."
In the past week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and Central Command leader Gen. David H. Petraeus were in Washington supporting McChrystal’s view.
Gates rejected characterizations that the Obama team was having "second thoughts" about its own war plan. He stressed Obama was clear when he announced his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy in March that his team would review that plan after the August national elections in Afghanistan.
McChrystal’s unexpectedly dire report, which arrived before the unexpectedly turbulent elections, has made a complete strategy review even more necessary, said Gates.
"There’s got to be some dialogue between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of Central Command, as well as Gen. McChrystal, and the president’s national security team," he said. Gates said he had lengthy discussion on Wednesday with McChrystal and Petraeus and they agree.
"He understands this process," Gates said of McChrystal. "Once we confidently have the strategy right, then we’ll address the request for additional resources."
Gates also told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that too much outside discussion on McChrystal’s report was focused on how many U.S. troops were needed when the report was more about what to do them.
"What he talks about is not resources, but a different way of using forces."
And any troop increase, even if approved today, would not arrive in Afghanistan until January. "I haven’t even given [President Obama] Gen. McChrystal’s request for resources," said Gates.
At the White House, Vice President Joseph Biden is pushing for one new way, a mix of more targeted attacks on key enemy leaders, often with remotely piloted drones, rather than large swaths of ground troops. Gates has said he worries about a large "footprint" of foreign troops in Afghanistan, but that the war cannot be won remotely. He has not commented directly on the Biden plan.
This week, the White House begins a series of five national security meetings that will determine the way forward, National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones said, according to the Washington Post.
Gates said despite the perceived delays, he still feels the U.S. has only just begun to focus properly on Afghanistan with the first real U.S. strategy for that region since the 1980s.
"The reality is we were fighting a holding action [during President George W. Bush’s administration]," he said. "We were too stretched to do more, and I think we did not have the kind of comprehensive strategy that we do now."
When asked if, after eight years in Afghanistan, the U.S was in a quagmire, Gates responded forcefully, "I don’t think so, and with a general like Gen. McChrystal, it won’t become one."
"If we’re not making progress, we’re prepared to adjust our strategy … just like we’re adjusting now."