WASHINGTON, June 23, 2011 — The whole time Robert M. Gates has served as defense secretary, the nation has been at war on two fronts.
When Gates came on board in December 2006, his focus initially was on Iraq, where sectarian violence threatened to rip the country apart. He then shifted his attention to Afghanistan, where the Taliban regained the initiative while the United States was preoccupied with Iraq.
Gates was the man President George W. Bush tapped to retrieve the situation in Iraq. The secretary was familiar with the situation on the ground. As a member of the Iraq Study Group, he had traveled in the country and spoke with U.S. and Iraqi leaders. He had met with the troops doing the heavy lifting and taking the casualties in Baghdad, Tikrit and Anbar province.
The day after Gates took office, he boarded an aircraft for Baghdad and consulted with U.S. and Iraqi leaders. It was the first of 13 visits to Iraq as defense secretary. “I had three priorities when I arrived: … Iraq, Iraq and Iraq,” the secretary said during a recent interview with American Forces Press Service.
As the surge troops arrived in Iraq, violent incidents rose to 500 per week, and American casualties climbed along with them.
The secretary had to convince Congress to stay the course and that it was essential to American security that people not perceive the United States had lost in Iraq. In one instance, he cancelled a trip to Latin America to be available to talk to U.S. senators who were wavering in their support for Iraq.
Despite initial doubt from some, the surge worked. At its height, there were more than 166,000 American service members in Iraq. By the summer of 2007, leading indicators in Iraq showed progress: the number of “no-go” neighborhoods was declining and violence was going down. The “Anbar Awakening” formed the Sons of Iraq security force and gave the Iraqi government breathing room to establish control and provide much needed governance and economic growth.
Now that Iraq is relatively peaceful and fewer than 50,000 American troops remain in the country as trainers for Iraqi security forces, it is easy to forget how dangerous the situation was.
With American service members bearing the brunt of the fighting, Gates dedicated himself to getting the troops in place and providing the resources they needed to be successful. Improvised explosive devices cut through even up-armored Humvees, causing terrible casualties. Gates made it a priority to get mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to the front.
During one visit to Anbar province, U.S. Marines there showed Gates an MRAP that had survived 20 attacks – none of which injured anyone inside. He returned to the United States determined to break through the bureaucratic inertia that had stymied procurement of the life-saving vehicles.
The surge allowed the Iraqi security forces to learn their trades and become effective. American and coalition trainers worked with the Iraqi army and police to hone their fighting and peacekeeping skills.
And it was successful. The Iraqi army that pacified Basra was a well-led and confident force operating with U.S. air and logistics support.
Iraq is on its way to being a stable democracy in an area in need of stability. But some wonder if it can stay that way without American help after Dec. 31 when U.S. forces are scheduled to leave.
The outcome in Iraq remains a cliffhanger, Gates said, noting that with the exception of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraqis in influential positions know the country will still need some U.S. help.
“All the evidence we have, all the political leaders in Iraq — with the exception of Sadr — want us to stay for training and to have a presence,” Gates said, “and we’re prepared to do that.” The secretary added that he believes it will happen.
“It’ll be ugly, it’ll be at the last minute, and it’ll create all kinds of hassles for us logistically, but I think they see it as very much in their interest, and so do we,” he said. “It’s just a matter now of getting the ball across the goal line, and I think the conversations are about to begin, and most of the leaders are more forthright with us than they were in the past.
Even as conditions improved in Iraq, they were deteriorating in Afghanistan. American troops and their Afghan allies drove the Taliban from power in 2001. Many Taliban and their al-Qaida allies sought haven in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
There were few American and coalition forces in Afghanistan and the effort to train the Afghan national security forces lagged. The Afghan army was making progress, but training police was a problem.
In 2008, Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Afghanistan “an economy of force” mission – meaning there were enough troops to maintain the presence, but not enough to be effective.
The Taliban took advantage of this and began infiltrating back into their strongholds in the southern part of the country. Kandahar City and Helmand province were particular strongholds. In January 2009, when President Barack Obama took office, there were 35,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan.
Gates stressed that the United States could not abandon Afghanistan as it did following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The lack of U.S. involvement led to the rise of the Taliban and gave al-Qaida a place to plan their attack on America on 9–11.
Obama sent more troops and materials to Afghanistan, and worked with national security leaders to devise a strategy and assess the requirements for implementing it.
In December 2009, Obama announced the strategy during a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He would send a surge of forces into the country – 33,000 Americans and 10,000 coalition partners, and increase trainers for Afghan soldiers and police.
The additional troops began moving into Afghanistan in January 2010 and the last of the surge brigades –the 101st Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade – arrived in August.
The increase in the number of U.S. soldiers and U.S. Marines was felt almost immediately. The Marines took the fight to the Taliban in their strongholds in the Helmand River Valley. Marja, Lashkar Gah and Sangin were cities where the Taliban enforced their will and the Marines took them on and drove them out.
In Kandahar province, the Arghandab district and areas south and west of Kandahar city were wrested from Taliban control.
And that progress has continued. In July 2010, Gates took a stroll through the main street of Now Zad – a place he could not have walked through a few months earlier. The much improved security has brought out Afghan entrepreneurs and the main street is lined with shops and bustling with people.
Afghan troops are taking over security responsibility from the coalition in many of these areas. The provincial and district governments are coming together and putting in place programs to encourage development.
The coalition and their Afghan allies have taken the momentum back and this fighting season will be crucial to holding their gains, Gates said. He added that he believes the Taliban must understand they have been decisively beaten before they seriously attempt reconciliation with the government.
As the secretary leaves office, there are 100,000 American service members serving in Afghanistan. That number will go down as Afghan forces take on security responsibility.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the second of a four-part series.)
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)