Gates Overcomes Obstacles in Iraq, Afghanistan

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) 

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