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Defense Chief Calls Afghanistan 'Greatest Military Challenge' For U.S.

  • Heather Maher

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has told Congress that Afghanistan is the United States' "greatest military challenge" and said he gives the effort against insurgents poor marks for coordination.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said the effort to defeat militants and help develop a nation that rejects the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban will be difficult -- more difficult, perhaps, than the war in Iraq.

The country's top defense official also sought to redefine what success in Afghanistan might realistically look like -- not a thriving, prosperous democracy, but a place where Al-Qaeda no longer finds safe haven and the people reject rule by Islamic extremists in favor of a democratically elected government.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq over the next 16 months and add as many as 30,000 more U.S. troops to the current force of 36,000 already in Afghanistan, which he considers the central front in the fight against terrorism.

'No Purely Military Solution'

In his testimony, Gates endorsed the plan to increase the size of the Afghan force to mount a stronger defense against increasingly bold Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces.

"As in Iraq, there is no purely military solution in Afghanistan," Gates said. "But it is also clear that we have not had enough troops to provide a baseline level of security in some of the most dangerous areas -- a vacuum that increasingly has been filled by the Taliban."

I will tell you that I believe that the civilian casualties are doing us enormous harm in Afghanistan, and we have got to do better in terms of avoiding casualties.
The defense chief said "crushing poverty, a thriving drug trade fueling corruption, a ruthless and resilient insurgency, and violent extremists of many stripes" have devastated the country, and that the coordination of troops, nongovernmental organizations, governance experts, and others has been "less than stellar."

But he also said assessments are under way that take into account lessons learned from the U.S. experience in Iraq and eight years in Afghanistan, and that a way forward is beginning to emerge.

"While this will undoubtedly be a long and difficult fight, we can attain what I believe should be among our strategic objectives," Gates said. "Above all, an Afghan people who do not provide a safe haven for Al-Qaeda, who reject the rule of the Taliban, and support the legitimate government they have elected and in which they have a stake. "

The Pentagon could send two more brigades to the country by late spring, and a third by July in an effort to improve the security situation, which has dramatically worsened in recent months.

'Words Of Caution'

On Iraq, Gates called the Status of Forces Agreement that went into effect January 1 a "watershed" that marks the beginning of an orderly drawdown of U.S. forces there.

He also offered what he said were "words of caution."

"Though the violence [in Iraq] has remained low, there is still the potential for setbacks. And there may be hard days ahead for our troops," Gates warned. "As our military presence decreases over time, we should still expect to be involved in Iraq, on some level, for many years to come, assuming a sovereign Iraq continues to seek our partnership."

Obama will meet with military planners on January 28 for a briefing on a range of options for ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq by as early as May 2010.

In response to questioning, Gates acknowledged that the high rate of civilian casualties in Afghanistan caused by U.S. forces and their allies has angered and alienated the Afghan people.

"I will tell you that I believe that the civilian casualties are doing us enormous harm in Afghanistan, and we have got to do better in terms of avoiding casualties," Gates said. "And I say that knowing full well the Taliban mingle among the people, use them as barriers, but when we go ahead and attack, we play right into their hands."

Widespread Anger

A report by Human Rights Watch from September 2008 found that air strikes killed at least 321 civilians in 2007, compared with 116 in 2006. In November, there was widespread anger after international forces called in an air strike against a suspected Taliban hideout in Kandahar Province and mistakenly killed as many as 40 members of a wedding party.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen
Gates noted that nearly 40 percent of air strikes are called in by international forces lacking adequate resources on the ground. He called for a "better way" to respond to insurgent attacks.

"We have got to figure out a better way to do these things, or to have the Afghans in the lead, because my worry is that the Afghans come to see us as part of their problem rather than part of their solution," Gates said. "And then we are lost."

At one point, former Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain asked Gates whether terrorists are operating openly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, two of the most violent areas of the country. Gates said he has received conflicting intelligence, but that troops on the ground say the situation, while not worse, is "different."

He said the Taliban's ability to freely cross the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has given them "greater freedom of action than they've had in the last couple of years."

An analysis of 13,000 violent incidents in Afghanistan in 2007 by the Kabul-based consultancy Tundra Strategic Security Solutions showed that the Taliban are increasingly using open-warfare techniques.

Ambushes and attacks with more than one kind of weapon comprised 2,555 incidents in 2008, up 117 percent from 2007, the analysis showed.

'Very Strong Message'

Also in Washington on January 27, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, briefed members of the foreign press and echoed the defense chief on U.S. military priorities.

"I think the top priority for us right now is Afghanistan-Pakistan," Mullen said. "I think President Obama has made that clear and you see that emphasized, and you will see that emphasized, in where the military will be engaged.

"We've talked for weeks now about commander General [David] McKiernan's additional request for forces. We've looked at the planning options to support that, even though all those decisions haven't been made yet. And all that to me sends a very strong message that Afghanistan and Pakistan are at the top of the list," Mullen added

Mullen said he advocates a regional approach to Afghanistan, which means engaging in dialogue with Pakistan and India, as well as Iran, whose nuclear activities "remain a great concern."

"I have said for many, many months, I think it's important to engage Iran," Mullen said. "Iran is unhelpful in many, many ways, in many, many areas. And so I wouldn't be overly optimistic at this point, but there are mutual interests and I think that that might offer some possibilities."

Obama has spoken often about the need for NATO allies to increase their troop commitments to Afghanistan, and Mullen said both he and Gates have been trying to persuade European allies to do so.

He noted that there are 10,000 more NATO troops in Afghanistan this year than there were last year, and said if Obama approached European governments, he hoped they would respond favorably.

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