- The Washington Times - Monday, October 5, 2009

WASHINGTON — Despite the fierce policy divide inside the White House over Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that the military will fall in line with whatever President Barack Obama decides.

The debate over whether to send as many as 40,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan is a major element of the strategy overhaul that senior administration policy advisers will consider this week as they gather for at least two top-level meetings on the evolving direction in the war.

At issue is whether U.S. forces should continue to focus on fighting the Taliban and securing the Afghan population, or shift to more narrowly targeting al Qaeda terrorists believed to be hiding in Pakistan with unmanned spy drones and covert operations.

“Speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability,” Gates told the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army.

Until then, Gates said, Obama’s military and civilian advisers need to give the president candid — but private — advice.

Gates has said he remains undecided on the strategy, and gave no hint Monday as to which camp he is leaning toward.

The top three U.S. military commanders overseeing the war in Afghanistan however, favor continuing the current fight against the Taliban, spurring the need for tens of thousands more U.S. troops beyond the 68,000 already there.

Officials across the Obama administration have acknowledged that the Taliban is far stronger now than in recent years, as underscored by weekend attacks that killed eight American soldiers in isolated outposts in Nuristan province.

The fighting Saturday marked the biggest loss of U.S. life in a single Afghan battle in more than a year. It also raised questions about why U.S. troops remained in the remote outposts after the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said this summer he planned to move forces away from the isolated strongholds and into more heavily populated areas as part of his new strategy to focus on protecting Afghan civilians.

Army Secretary John McHugh said Monday that the attacks — and the mission behind them — are being reviewed by commanders in Afghanistan. He called the review “a serious situation — and we intend to take it seriously.”

“There’s far more questions that the theater is trying to work through than we have definitive answers,” McHugh told reporters at an Army conference in Washington. “And rather than just jump to conclusions, the theater is working hard and we want to allow them the opportunity to get the correct answers.”

Gates’ earlier comments came days after McChrystal bluntly warned a London audience that Afghan insurgents are gathering strength and any plan that falls short of stabilizing Afghanistan “is probably a shortsighted strategy.” Gates did not mention McChrystal in his comments, and made clear that all who are advising Obama in the war strategy should keep publicly quiet.

“In this process, it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations — civilians and military alike — provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately,” Gates said.

Obama will meet twice this week with this top national security advisers, including Gates, to continue debating the strategy.

On Sunday, Obama’s national security adviser, former Gen. James Jones, offered a mild rebuke of McChrystal for his London speech.

It is “better for military advice to come up through the chain of command,” said Jones.

But Jones also said that McChrystal “is in it for the long haul,” beating back suggestions that the general’s public remarks could jeopardize his job. “I don’t think this is an issue,” said Jones.

Jones also insisted that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling to the Taliban, and played down fears that the insurgency could set up a renewed sanctuary for al Qaeda.

“I don’t foresee the return of the Taliban. Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling,” Jones said. “The al Qaeda presence is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide