Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said it would be a “strategic mistake” to set a deadline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, saying such a move would emboldened al Qaeda terrorist operations.
His comments are a blow to liberals and some Democrats, including Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Dianne Feinstein of California, who have been pushing for a schedule to wind down U.S. military activity in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban and al Qaeda, as far as they’re concerned, defeated one superpower,” said Mr. Gates on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, referring to the 1980s U.S.-backed Muslim insurgency against the Soviet Union’s invasion. “For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think, would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, al Qaeda recruitment, operations, fundraising and so on. I think it would be a huge setback for the United States.”
Mr. Gates’ remarks came as President Obama re-examines his administration’s strategy in Afghanistan and as the Pentagon sits on a request for additional troops from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
Mrs. Feinstein warned Sunday against a protracted U.S. presence in Afghanistan, saying the political support did not exist.
“I do not believe the American people want to be in Afghanistan for the next 10 years, effectively nation-building,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.”
But Mr. Gates rebutted warnings of that sort, denying that Afghanistan has become a “quagmire” for the U.S.
“I don’t think so, and I think that with a general like McChrystal, it won’t become one,” Mr. Gates said. “I think that we are being very careful to look at this as we go along. We’ve put out metrics so that we can measure whether or not we’re making progress. And if we’re not making progress, then we’re prepared to adjust our strategy.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also called it too early to plan a military exit from Afghanistan, saying that a troop surge approved last spring hasn’t been completed.
“You don’t get up and just deploy the 82nd Airborne and they get there the next day,” Mrs. Clinton said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
When asked whether the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan was worth the price of American blood and money - particularly in light of repeated reports of corruption within the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai - Mrs. Clinton replied that, “With all respect, we’re doing this for the United States.”
“We’re doing this because we think that a return to a safe haven in Afghanistan with al Qaeda, with Taliban elements associated with al Qaeda, with the same purpose, to basically run a syndicate of terror out of either Afghanistan or the border region, is something we cannot tolerate,” she said.
Mr. Gates said that the administration and the Pentagon are reviewing Gen. McChrystal’s recommendations and will reassess their Afghanistan strategy within the next few weeks.
“I think it’s important to make sure we’re confident that we have the right strategy in place, and then we can make the decisions on additional forces,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Gen. McChrystal, in an interview with CBS, said both a different strategy and more troops are essential for making the quicker progress he said is needed.
“We could do good things in Afghanistan for the next 100 years and fail,” he told “60 Minutes” for a profile that aired Sunday. “Because we’re doing a lot of good things, and it just doesn’t add up to success. And we’ve got to think quicker.”
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Mr. Obama ought to meet Gen. McChrystal’s request, which he said was for 30,000 to 40,000 troops.
“I think it’s the worst - one of the many worst-kept secrets in Washington. It’s 30,000 to 40,000 troops,” Mr. McCain said on “This Week.” “I think you will see signs of success in a year to 18 months, if we implement the strategy right away.”
Regarding the Obama administration’s ability to meet its deadline to close the detention facility for terrorism suspects at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by January, Mr. Gates said that “it’s going to be tough.”
Mr. Gates added on “State of the Union” that the effort to close the detention center “has proven more complicated than anticipated.”
Still, he said he advised Mr. Obama soon after his election last year to set a deadline to close Guantanamo because “that’s the only way you move the bureaucracy in Washington.”
“And if you have to extend that date, if at least you have a strong plan, showing you’re making progress in that direction, then it shouldn’t be a problem to extend it,” he added. “We’ll just see whether that has to happen or not.”