WASHINGTON, Sept. 23, 2010 — President Barack Obama was “well-served” by the vigorous debate while the Afghan strategy was being developed, and the national security team has worked together harmoniously since his decision, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.
During a Pentagon news conference, Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were asked about reports of division among senior White House and defense officials in Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars.”
Excerpts from the book, due out Sept. 27, have been published in recent days.
Gates noted that conflict sells books. He said that the relationship among senior administration officials “is as harmonious as any I’ve experienced in my time in government,” which began in 1966.
Gates said discussions among military and civilian leaders are part of business. “Presidents are always well served when there is a vigorous and spirited debate over important issues,” he said. “And I felt that the debate with respect to Afghanistan was instructive.”
Gates said he learned things in the debate that adjusted his own position.
Those involved in the debate were passionate about their views, the secretary said, and they argued their points hard. “But I will tell you that once the president made his decision, this team came together and has been working together to execute this strategy,” he added.
Both Gates and Mullen said they fully support the president’s strategy. “I wouldn’t sign the deployment orders if I didn’t believe that,” the secretary said.
Mullen stressed that the 30,000 additional American troops that Obama ordered to Afghanistan in December have arrived, bringing the total U.S. involvement to 95,000, and the number of U.S. civilians in the country has tripled. U.S. allies have contributed more than 7,500 new coalition troops to the effort in Afghanistan to bring their total to 45,000.
“We’re at a place where we think we’ve got the inputs right, and we’re starting to see some signs of progress,” Mullen said. “With the right strategy and the right resources and the right leadership, … we’re starting to move forward.”
Gates spoke of the three phases of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were planned there. The first phase involved operations in 2001 and 2002, “which I would say we won outright,” he said. American special operations forces and some conventional forces from the 10th Mountain Division and the Marine Corps worked with the Afghan Northern Alliance to expel the Taliban. Afghanistan held elections, adopted a constitution, girls started going to school, and health clinics were built.
The second phase spanned from 2003 to 2006, when America’s attention was focused on Iraq, and the U.S. military had a relatively small number of troops in Afghanistan, the secretary said. “Our casualty levels were very low,” he noted. “When I took this job on Dec. 18, 2006, 187 Americans had been killed in action in Afghanistan.”
In 2007 and 2008, American attention once again turned to Afghanistan, but few resources were available, and the Taliban reconstituted itself, Gates said.
“So it’s really only been … since the beginning of 2009, with the president’s first decision to add another 21,000 troops, and then his decision in December to add another 30,000 … that we have actually got the resources in Afghanistan to partner with the Afghans and have some prospect of dealing with a resurgent Taliban,” the secretary said. “So while we speak shorthand of a nine-year war, in reality that war, in my view, has been in three phases. And the third phase of that war began last year.”
Gates said the Afghan security forces are having an effect in the country. About 85 percent of all Afghan forces are partnered with coalition forces, he said, and their combat effectiveness is increasing.
Narrowing the mission was another part of Obama’s strategy, the secretary said. The president called for American troops to focus on the key districts to reverse the momentum of the Taliban, “denying them control of territory where there was population, degrading their capabilities at the same time we were enhancing the capabilities of the Afghan security forces,” he said.
“I think all of that is under way,” Gates continued. “And we are seeing slow, tough progress, … and I believe that actually this is one of those instances where the closer you are to the front line, in some respects, the better it looks.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)