- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried to brace the public Thursday for the prospect of an expanded mission in Afghanistan and at the same time reassure the American people that the chances for military success there are not “slipping through the administration’s fingers.”

In a mid-afternoon news conference at the Pentagon, Mr. Gates acknowledged what has become widely evident in public polls and in the increasingly vocal statements from members of Congress — that public support for the war effort is fading.

“The nation has been at war for eight years,” Mr. Gates said. “The fact that Americans would be tired of having their sons and daughters at risk and in battle is not surprising.”

As public support has shown signs of wilting, the Pentagon and the White House have been ramping up efforts to expand the nation’s presence in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander directly in charge of the Afghan campaign, has presented a new assessment of the situation on the ground to President Obama as the president decides on the administration’s policy regarding the war.

Mr. Gates did not say whether the new strategy being implemented would require more troops than the 62,000 already committed to the effort, but he and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen made clear the country would need to commit to protecting the people of Afghanistan and battling the Islamist Taliban movement.

“There has been enormous focus on troop numbers and time lines lately. Lots of conjecture, lots of speculation,” said Adm. Mullen. “What’s more important than the numbers of troops [that General McChrystal] may or may not ask for is how he intends to use them,” Adm. Mullen said. “It should come as no surprise to anyone that he intends to use those forces under his command to protect the Afghan people, to give them the security they need to reject the influence the Taliban seeks.”

Both men said President Obama has just recently received General McChrystal’s assessment of the situation on the ground, and they expect to meet several times in coming days to evaluate that plan and formulate the strategy for moving forward. To the extent the civilian and military leaders telegraphed what to anticipate as they begin to roll out a new plan, it was the repeated attention to protecting the Afghan people and stabilizing conditions on the ground.

“As one villager told a visiting U.S. lawmaker recently,” Adm. Mullen said, “‘Security is the mother of all progress.’”