USA — Gates Sees Progress in Afghanistan, Despite Challenges

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)