WASHINGTON – Though U.S. operations in Afghanistan are proving to be a „tough pull,“ as was predicted, progress is being made nonetheless, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told „Fox News Sunday“ host Chris Wallace.
And, Gates emphasized, it’s much too early in the process to evaluate whether or not the Afghanistan mission is succeeding.
Besides Afghanistan, Gates and Wallace also discussed oil spill mitigation efforts in the Gulf, UN sanctions against Iran, the repeal of the „Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell“ law, and the defense budget.
Gates said Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, noted at the NATO defense ministerial meetings held June 10-11 in Brussels, Belgium, that headway was being made in Afghanistan.
„Gen. McChrystal briefed in detail on the Marja operation as well as on Kandahar,“ Gates said. „And, the bottom line was: progress is being made. It’s [just] somewhat slower than anticipated.“
The operation in Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban, has been underway for a number of weeks, Gates said. Meanwhile, not all of the 30,000 additional U.S. troops tabbed to participate in the Afghan „surge“ have arrived in country.
„And, so what is taking more time is the shaping of the environment before we actually engage with troops and so on,“ Gates explained. „And so I think that it is a ‚tough pull,‘ and we are suffering significant casualties.
„We expected that,“ he continued, „We’d warned everybody that would be the case last winter; that as we went into areas that the Taliban had controlled for two or three years that our casualties would grow – especially this summer.“
Nonetheless, Gates said, McChrystal’s message to the NATO defense ministers was that the general „will be able to demonstrate by December that we not only have the right strategy, but that we are making progress“ in Afghanistan.
July 2011 is the transition date when coalition forces start to turn over responsibility for security to the Afghan National Security Forces.
Gates said he believes the Afghan army and police „will be ready to assume primarily responsibility for security in certain areas of Afghanistan, certainly by a year from this coming July.“
Meanwhile, he said, the Afghan army is meeting its recruiting quotas and is building toward fielding 134,000 soldiers by this fall. The Afghan army’s attrition and retention rates, he added, are both above expectations.
And, though there may be instances of corruption among some in the Afghan army’s ranks, Gates said, the majority of Afghan troops are performing well in operations alongside U.S. and allied forces.
„We clearly understand that in July of 2011 we begin to drawdown our forces“ in Afghanistan, Gates said. And, both the pace at which that drawdown is conducted and the numbers of troops involved, he added, will be based on conditions on the ground. McChrystal and senior Afghan government and NATO officials, he said, will work together in assessing those conditions as they make their recommendations.
Gates said he perceives „a rush to judgment“ by some of the effectiveness of the new Afghanistan strategy, noting the strategy has only been in place for four or five months. About 10,000 troops, he said, have yet to deploy to Afghanistan to participate in „surge“ operations, while President Barack Obama has said that he’ll evaluate the effectiveness of the mission in December.
„We are still in the middle of getting all of the right components into place [in Afghanistan],“ Gates said, adding it’ll take „a little time to have this work.“
Changing topics, Wallace asked Gates if there was anything more the Defense Department could do to assist in efforts to mitigate the effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Gates said the Pentagon has authorized the mobilization of up to 17,500 National Guard troops in the four states most-impacted by the spill.
However, Gates acknowledged, the U.S. military doesn’t possess the kinds of equipment or specific expertise needed to become more involved in oil mitigation efforts. Nonetheless, he said, the Pentagon stands ready to do whatever else it can.
Turning to Iran, Gates observed that imposing additional UN economic sanctions against the Iranian government „has real potential“ to deter it from developing nuclear weapons.
„I think you have a reasonable chance of getting the Iranian regime, finally, to come to their senses and realize their security is probably more in danger by going forward [toward developing nuclear weapons],“ Gates said.
The United States and its allies „do not accept the idea of Iran having nuclear weapons,“ he continued, „and our policies and our efforts are all aimed at preventing that from happening.“
Gates acknowledged that all options remain on the table to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear arms. Meanwhile, he added, there still is „some time to continue working this problem“ through diplomacy.
The secretary also discussed the Pentagon’s review to understand the implications of a possible repeal of the so-called „Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell“ law that bans gays and lesbians from openly serving in the U.S. military. President Obama has called on Congress to repeal the law.
„The president has made his decision,“ Gates said, noting the department’s review aims to formulate how to implement the change and to discern any obstacles, problems, challenges and other issues involved in changing the law and how to mitigate any negative consequences. Meanwhile, military members and their families are being asked about their feelings about changing the DADT law.
„And I feel it is very important for the military to have the opportunity to weigh in, to register their views on these issues and to give us help on how to do this ’smart,‘ should the legislation pass,“ Gates said.
Turning to the fiscal 2011 defense budget request being crafted on Capitol Hill, Gates said it „would be a very serious mistake“ for people to believe that Obama would not veto budget legislation that would make the Pentagon buy a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or continue production of the C-17 cargo plane, both of which the defense secretary asserts the military doesn’t need.
On a related topic, Gates urged U.S. legislators to pass the department’s supplemental budget request by the Fourth of July Congressional recess. The $159 billion supplemental request contained within the fiscal 2011 defense budget funds overseas contingency operations, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while another $33 billion is required in fiscal 2010 to fund President Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy.
If the supplemental isn’t passed before the Fourth of July recess, the secretary said, the Pentagon will need to plan to make decisions that would negatively impact servicemembers and department civilians by early- to mid-August, in order to contend with major financial disruptions caused by the lack of supplemental monies.
And, regarding Wallace’s question to Gates whether he’ll stay on as defense secretary after the first of next year, the defense secretary replied, „We’ll just see.“
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)