Defense Secretary Offers Cautious Views on Wars
SENJARAY, Afghanistan — No one has ever accused Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates of happy talk, but during a trip this week to assess the state of America’s two wars his words were more restrained than usual.
Even after pronouncing himself “encouraged” on Friday during a visit to the Afghan province of Kandahar, where United States forces are trying to flush out the Taliban from their spiritual home, Mr. Gates quickly added, “Everybody knows this is far from a done deal.”
Part of his tone comes from who he is, a former cold warrior and longtime C.I.A. analyst, cautious and low-wattage, whose business was the dark side of people and countries. But much of his language reflects the military uncertainty right now in Iraq and Afghanistan, where one war is winding down and another building up, with no guarantee that either will succeed.
“What he’s always been concerned about is continuing to sign deployment orders for men and women who might be heading into a stalemate,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, who was traveling with Mr. Gates.
Mr. Gates seemed to have come away from the trip persuaded that is not yet a danger, but he still lowered expectations about what he would be able to tell the White House in a review of the Afghan war strategy set for December.
Speaking at Combat Outpost Senjaray, 12 miles southwest of the city of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold, Mr. Gates said, “The question to be addressed in December is, ‘Is the strategy working, are we headed in the right direction, do we have enough evidence of progress?’ ”
He concluded, carefully, “I’m hopeful that we will be in that position.”
Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the American and NATO second in command in Afghanistan, was equally circumspect. Asked if he would be able to show “significant progress” in December, General Rodriguez told reporters, “I think we will be able to show progress. ‘Significant’ I’m not sure that’s the right word or measure.”
Both General Rodriguez and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, say that although large parts of the country are under control, Marja, the site of a major American offensive in Helmand Province in February, is still not secure, with Taliban still in the area threatening to kill residents who cooperate with United States forces. Both said that Afghan parliamentary elections set for mid-September would be a security challenge and that the Kandahar operation was moving slowly.
In that operation, American forces are building a perimeter of checkpoints to cut off Taliban movement into the city of Kandahar and hunting and killing Taliban in the rural districts that insurgents control outside the city. General Rodriguez termed the Kandahar effort hard but “not impossible.”
Mr. Gates offered one of his bluntest assessments of the Afghan war during a news conference on Thursday with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, where an Afghan reporter asked Mr. Gates why the United States had a deadline of July 2011 for the start of American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.
“Will the situation get better, or you think it will get better by then?” the reporter asked, his voice rising. “Why is the United States president even talking about it? Because the situation gets worse here every day.”
Mr. Gates, after repeating what has now become a mantra that most American troops will still be in Afghanistan after next year, then said, his own voice rising slightly, “Let’s be honest about this. The United States is spending over $100 billion a year in this fight in Afghanistan. America’s sons and daughters are being wounded and killed. The American people need to know that 15 years from now we are not still going to be fighting this fight.”
In Iraq, Mr. Gates did not offer much cheer either. Asked on the day of an elaborate ceremony marking the end of American combat operations in Iraq if the war had been worth it, Mr. Gates said that that only time could judge. “It really requires a historian’s perspective in terms of what happens here in the long run,” he said.
As the defense secretary who oversaw an increase of American forces in Iraq under President George W. Bush and the current reduction to 50,000 troops under President Obama, Mr. Gates added that “the war will always be clouded by how it began” — that is, the premise on which it was justified, Saddam Hussein’s unconventional weapons, which did not exist.
Mr. Gates began his travels in Milwaukee, where in a speech to the American Legion he cautioned against letting down American defenses — and offered up a worldview that was reflected in his attitudes toward Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We have a troubling, predictable pattern of coming to the end of a conflict, concluding that the nature of man and the world has changed for the better, and turning inward, unilaterally disarming and dismantling institutions important to our national security,” he said. “When we are invariably — and inevitably — proved wrong, when war comes again, we have had to rebuild and rearm, at huge cost in blood and treasure.”