Pentagon chiefs urge fast turnaround in Afghan war

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen speak Thursday at the Pentagon.
The United States has a limited amount of time to show Afghans and Americans success in turning around a war in Afghanistan that is facing declining support, according to the top Pentagon leadership.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking to reporters at a Pentagon news conference Thursday, said he does not believe that the U.S. should pull out of the country and fight a battle from afar with unmanned drones and small special operations forces, a plan suggested by an influential conservative columnist this week. “I absolutely do not think it is time to get out of Afghanistan. And I think that the notion that you can conduct a purely counterterrorist kind of campaign and do it from a distance simply does not accord with reality,” Gates said. “I do believe we have to start to turn this around from a security standpoint over the next 12 to 18 months,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said as he spoke with Gates. “No one is more aware than Gen. McChrystal, and certainly the two of us, that there is a limited time for us to show … that this approach is working,” Mullen said, referring to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released last Tuesday showed that since April, opposition to the war has increased 11 percentage points to 57 percent. Gates countered, explaining that a change in strategy in the almost eight-year campaign was just announced in March by President Obama and that a new commander with a new plan just stared in June.

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“We understand the concerns on the part of many Americans. … We think that we now have the resources and the right approach to begin making some headway and turning around a situation that, as many have indicated, has been deteriorating,” Gates said. But Gates also warned of a “tipping point where the Afghans see us as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.” He said McChrystal’s focus on protecting the general population and trying to limit strikes that could kill civilians is an important part of fighting that. This week, McChrystal delivered his long-awaited assessment of the mission in Afghanistan. The recommendations McChrystal makes are meant to advise Obama on how to implement the president’s war strategy, not “launch a new one,” Gates said. He added that any request for additional resources in Afghanistan will come later. Mullen said any request for additional troops is “critical,” but not the total goal. What is more important than the number of troops he “may or may not ask for” is how he will use them, Mullen added. He said he intends to use those forces to protect the general Afghan population. Gates backed off a bit from his frequently stated concern about the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan, saying that McChrystal has argued that the size of the American force is not as important as to how it interacts with Afghan perception. “I take seriously Gen. McChrystal’s point that the size of the imprint — of the footprint … depends in significant measure on … the nature of the footprint and the behavior of those troops and their attitudes and their interactions with the Afghans,” Gates said.