Obama Well-served by Afghan Debate, Gates Says

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)

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