Defense Secretary Robert Gates attends graduation ceremonies Saturday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In an interview en route to the academy, he said momentum in the Afghan war is with the Taliban.
American public support for the Afghan war will dissipate in less than a year unless the Obama administration achieves “a perceptible shift in momentum,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in an interview.
Mr. Gates said the momentum in Afghanistan is with the Taliban, who are inflicting heavy U.S. casualties and hold de facto control of swaths of the country.
The defense chief has been moving aggressively to salvage the war in Afghanistan, signing off on the deployments of 21,000 American military personnel and recently taking the unprecedented step of firing the four-star general who commanded all U.S. forces there. Mr. Gates, speaking in his cabin on an Air Force plane, said the administration is rapidly running out of time to turn around the war.
“People are willing to stay in the fight, I believe, if they think we’re making headway,” he said. “If they think we’re stalemated and having our young men and women get killed, then patience is going to run out pretty fast.”
Mr. Gates, a Bush administration holdover, also waded into the debate over the Guantanamo Bay prison and Bush-era antiterror tactics. He said critics of the Obama administration’s plans to close Guantanamo and move some prisoners to the U.S. were guilty of “fear-mongering.”
“If people begin to absorb the fact that we’ve got several dozen very dangerous terrorists in our jails right now…maybe a little greater perspective would be brought to the issue,” he said.
Colin Powell, a former secretary of state and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in Republican administrations, on Sunday told CBS News’s “Face the Nation” that he had lobbied former President George W. Bush to close the facility and that Mr. Bush had wanted to close it but “couldn’t get all the pieces together.”
Mr. Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said government interrogators should be limited to the techniques contained in the Army Field Manual and barred from using harsher methods.
“We have as high a motive to get information that will prevent attacks on our soldiers as anybody does,” he said of the military. “And yet we find the methods that we use are sufficient.”
The defense chief sided with Mr. Obama in his debate with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who defended the Bush administration’s interrogation tactics and criticized the president in a speech last week. “Having been in this business a long time, I think that you never can underestimate the power of American values,” Mr. Gates said.
The interview comes as Mr. Gates is trying to fundamentally change how the military prepares for and fights its wars. Mr. Bush brought him in to calm the waters in late 2006 after Donald Rumsfeld’s contentious reign. Some predicted an unremarkable and fairly short tenure, but three years later, Mr. Gates has become one of the most powerful defense chiefs in decades. He has cut billions of dollars in high-tech weapons systems and fired a raft of high-ranking generals and senior Pentagon officials.
Mr. Gates also is driving the armed services to drop their traditional preoccupation with conventional wars and focus on counterinsurgencies like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter is now Mr. Gates’s top priority. Earlier this month, the defense chief made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan and fired Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander there. Several senior officers have complained privately that Mr. Gates was wrong to fire Gen. McKiernan without specific cause.
In the interview, Mr. Gates said the move reflected lessons learned in Iraq. When the Bush administration decided to implement a new counterinsurgency strategy there, Mr. Gates ousted Gen. George Casey, who was then the Iraq commander.
With the Obama administration recently unveiling a new Afghanistan strategy, Mr. Gates said it made sense to put new commanders in place there as well. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a veteran of the military’s secretive special-operations community, will assume overall command in Kabul. Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, one of the Army’s top experts on counterinsurgency, will run day-to-day operations.
Mr. Gates also said Iran was harming U.S. interests in Afghanistan by sending weapons to the Taliban and other armed groups. He expressed particular concern that Tehran might step up its shipments of explosively formed penetrators, powerful roadside bombs capable of punching through even the strongest armor.
At the suggestion of some of his staff, Mr. Gates has begun referring to himself as the “secretary of war,” saying that shows he and his department have no higher priority than the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The reality is we have two major wars going on and I feel that very strongly,” he said. “That’s what makes me impatient.”
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