Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday signaled sharply lower expectations for the war in Afghanistan, warning the conflict will be "a long slog" and that U.S. and allied military forces, even at higher levels, can achieve limited goals.
Gates said the U.S. military expects to be able to send three additional combat brigades -- between 10,000 and 12,000 troops -- to Afghanistan between late spring and midsummer to address a security vacuum "that increasingly has been filled by the Taliban."
Still, he warned that he would be "deeply skeptical" of any further U.S. troop increases, saying that Afghan soldiers and police must take the lead, in part so that the Afghan public does not turn against U.S. forces as it has against foreign troops throughout history. The U.S. force in Afghanistan numbers about 36,000, and commanders there have asked for as many as 30,000 more combat and support troops.
"There is little doubt that our greatest military challenge right now is Afghanistan," Gates said, marking the formal shift in priorities away from Iraq in his first congressional testimony as Pentagon chief under President Obama. Still, Gates said, U.S. goals in Afghanistan must be "modest" and "realistic."
"This is going to be a long slog, and frankly, my view is that we need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan," he said. "If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money," Gates testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Valhalla is used as a synonym for heaven, but in Norse mythology it is a great hall where heroes slain in battle are received.)
Civilian casualties resulting from U.S. combat and airstrikes have been particularly harmful to progress in Afghanistan and must be avoided, Gates stressed. "My worry is that the Afghans come to see us as part of their problem rather than part of their solution, and then we are lost," he said.
Moreover, the U.S. military must immediately voice regret for any civilian casualties, rather than waiting to investigate the details, Gates said in separate testimony before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday afternoon.
Gates said this is necessary to counter Taliban insurgents, who he said hide among the population and then report civilian deaths in coalition military operations quickly and widely on the Internet. "The instant we believe there may have been civilian casualties, we have to be out there" expressing condolences, rather than arguing over the numbers, he said.
Gates also warned of Iranian interference in Afghanistan, pointing to a slightly increased flow of weapons including components of lethal munitions known as "explosively formed projectiles." He said Iran wants to "have it both ways," seeking economic and diplomatic benefits of relations with Kabul while still attempting to impose "the highest possible costs" on U.S. and coalition troops.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen said at a news conference late yesterday that roadside bomb and suicide attacks in Afghanistan have increased an estimated 40 percent over last year.
Iranian activities have been troubling in other parts of the world, Gates said, including Latin America, where Iran is setting up "a lot of offices and a lot of fronts."
On Iraq, Gates said Pentagon and military leaders are working on several timetables for U.S. troops to move from a combat to an advisory role beginning as early as 16 months from now and extending until the end of 2011. The options for and risks of withdrawing the 142,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq are being presented to Obama, who will meet with the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon today, Gates said.
At the Pentagon, Gates made it clear that in a time of financial austerity his priority will be to reform the Pentagon's cumbersome acquisition process while crafting "a unified defense strategy that determines our budget priorities."
"The spigot of defense spending that opened on 9/11 is closing. With two major campaigns ongoing, the economic crisis and resulting budget pressures will force hard choices on this department," he said.
In particular, he criticized "entrenched attitudes throughout the government" that he said "are particularly pronounced in the area of acquisition: a risk-averse culture, a litigious process, parochial interests, excessive and changing requirements, budget churn and instability, and sometimes adversarial relationships" between the Pentagon and other parts of government.
Gates gave few details about the upcoming defense budget but offered a glimpse of how he will approach his pledge to take a hard look at Pentagon spending on weapons systems. New weapons systems should be able to address a "hybrid" threat from enemies who combine high technology with insurgent tactics.
"I want us to look for systems that have the maximum possible flexibility across the broadest possible range of conflict," he said in the House testimony.
On detainees, Gates said he agrees with the deadline of closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. He said about 70 detainees can return home for rehabilitation, while others will face trial in military courts or military commissions. The "toughest issue" will be dealing with "the relatively small number" who "cannot be brought to trial and yet are quite open about saying that if they're released, they will find ways to kill Americans," he said.