For his first appearance before the Senate as President Obama’s defense secretary, Robert Gates did something unexpected: he offered a glimpse into the Obama administration’s forthcoming review of strategy for the precarious war in Afghanistan — balanced with stark warnings about the dangers U.S. troops face there.
Gates, a cautious advocate of bolstering U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he worries that “Afghans [will] come to see us as the problem, not the solution, and then we are lost.” He warned that increased levels of U.S. troop deaths in 2009 were “likely.”
At their confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Director of National Intelligence-designate Dennis Blair punted questions about Afghanistan, pending a review by the new administration slated to occur over the first weeks of the administration. Unlike his colleagues entering the administration, Gates, who served as Pentagon chief under President George W. Bush, could not claim a lack of familiarity with the intricacies of the war. While working for Bush, Gates was frequently a voice of caution on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, contrasting with the often triumphalist rhetoric and expansive goals of his then-colleagues — aides have said that he has more in common with Obama’s approach to foreign affairs than he did with Bush’s — and Gates’ measured tone in the hearing was hardly a departure from his style in the Bush administration. But Gates appeared freer to voice concern about the course of the war during Tuesday’s hearing than he was as a Bush cabinet official, befitting his new status as an architect of policy rather than an inheritor of it.
Most importantly, Gates provided a series of warnings that might help shape the ways in which the Obama administration takes charge of the Afghanistan war. The most immediate issue facing the administration on the war is whether to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan — something Obama repeatedly promised on the campaign trail and is now attracting increasing discomfort among the administration’s progressive base. In December, Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, stated that he needs an increase of nearly 30,000 troops “for the next few years” — in other words, a sustained troop increase, not a brief surge in U.S. forces as occurred in Iraq in 2007. In the last few days Obama administration officials have begun telling reporters off the record not to presume that the president has made a decision on the size or duration of any prospective troop increase.
Gates said Tuesday that he backs McKiernan’s request — but signaled that the troop spigot would not remain open. “I would be very skeptical about additional force levels beyond what Gen. McKiernan asked for,” Gates told the Senate panel. A former senior CIA official during the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Gates recalled that “the Soviets couldn’t win that war with 120,000 troops and a ruthless approach” to Afghan civilians, since they adopted “the wrong strategy.”
While not exactly spelling out what the right strategy for Afghanistan would be, Gates went further than any Obama official has to date in sketching what such an approach might look like. “Above all,” he said, “there must be an Afghan face on this war.” More important to Gates than increasing U.S. troop levels, he said, was increasing the numbers of Afghan security forces, and he said the government of Hamid Karzai supports a U.S.-backed effort to increase the Afghan National Army to 130,000 troops from its current 80,000, though he said he was unsure “even that number will be large enough.” At several points in the hearing, Gates worried that the U.S. was losing support from the Afghan people, saying that the U.S. has “lost the strategic communications war” to the Afghan insurgency about U.S.-caused civilian casualties. Proposing a policy of “first apologiz[ing]” when U.S. troops kill civilians in error, Gates said, “We have to get the balance right with the Afghan people or we will lose this war.”
Moving away from the Bush administration’s expansive rhetoric about creating an Afghan democracy, Gates mused that the U.S. needed to set “modest, realistic goals” in Afghanistan, making clear that he sees “no purely military solution” for the insurgency, preferring a “fully integrated civil-military strategy.” The U.S.’s minimum goals should be to ensure “an Afghan people who do not provide a safe haven for Al Qaeda” and provide an unspecified degree of support for the Afghan government. While the U.S. could assist the Afghanistan government’s economic efforts, Gates warned, “If we set as the goal [creating] a Central Asian Valhalla, we will lose.” He offered only tepid support to an idea, floated by McKiernan, that NATO should become more actively involved in counternarcotics efforts to combat sources of insurgent fundraising. And while he supports training and equipping increased numbers of Afghan security forces, he envisioned merely “a capable, reasonably honest Afghan police” force — a concession to the rampant levels of police corruption in Afghanistan.
Evidently cautious about what remains achievable in Afghanistan, Gates notably did not address some of the more controversial proposals for Afghanistan policy: encouraging local and tribal governance with looser connections to the central Kabul government than Karzai’s administration has pushed; training tribal auxiliary forces to supplement security efforts; and negotiating separate peaces with elements of the insurgency to peel away support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Without the support of the Afghan people, Gates said, the U.S. would simply “go the way of every other foreign army that’s ever been in Afghanistan.” Putting Afghan troops at the “forefront” of the fight is imperative, the defense secretary continued. “Villagers [must] see it’s their army they’re helping,” Gates said, “not U.S. troops kicking down their doors.”
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