- The Washington Times - Friday, September 4, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert M. 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 news conference at the Pentagon, Mr. Gates acknowledged what has become widely evident in public polls and in 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.”

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Addressing widespread concerns that the Taliban is gaining strength in spite of the best efforts of U.S. forces, he added, “I don’t believe that the war is slipping through the administration’s fingers.”

The secretary’s public comments came as President Obama was at Camp David reviewing a confidential report prepared by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander directly in charge of the Afghan campaign, who is expected to soon request as many as 20,000 more troops.

In a speech to veterans last month, the president began to express an awareness of public fatigue with the Afghan war. “This will not be quick. This will not be easy,” he said.

In the two weeks since that speech, it has become even more clear that the nation is not eager for a prolonged sacrifice.

A CBS News poll released Tuesday found that fewer than half of Americans surveyed now support the president’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan, down from 56 percent in April. Four in 10 now say they want U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan decreased.

Congressional support for the war has followed a similar trajectory. Last week, Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, expressed his frustration in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, saying he could not “support an open-ended commitment to an escalating war in Afghanistan.”

“We’ve become embroiled in a nation-building experiment that may distract us from combating al Qaeda and its affiliates, not just in Pakistan, but in Yemen, the Horn of Africa and other terrorist sanctuaries,” Mr. Feingold wrote.

At the same time public support has begun to wilt, the Pentagon and the White House have been moving to expand the American military and civilian presence in Afghanistan in line with the recommendations from Gen. McChrystal.

Mr. Gates did not say whether the new strategy 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.

“There has been enormous focus on troop numbers and timelines lately. Lots of conjecture, lots of speculation,” said Adm. Mullen. “What’s more important than the numbers of troops [that Gen. McChrystal] may or may not ask for is how he intends to use them.

“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 they expect to meet several times in coming days to evaluate Gen. McChystal’s plan and formulate a strategy for moving forward. To the extent that they telegraphed their intentions, they repeatedly stressed the need to protect the Afghan people and stabilize conditions on the ground.

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

And the benefits of that security, Mr. Gates took pains to convey, extend to American soil. Borrowing a theme from Mr. Obama’s speech to veterans, he said the ultimate purpose of the war in Afghanistan is not nation-building, but to stop al Qaeda.

“It seems to me that in the context of the president’s goal of disrupting, dismantling and destroying al Qaeda, we seek an Afghanistan that is our partner in that endeavor and that can sustain that endeavor after we’re gone,” Mr. Gates said.

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