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Gates: No White House-Military Rift

Monday, 28 Sep 2009 07:31 AM

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates denies any rift between the U.S. military and the White House over the war in Afghanistan, and he suggests a possible radical shift in strategy was unlikely.

Asked Sunday whether there is tension between military and civilian leaders over the pace of decision-making on the U.S.-led mission, Gates said: "I don't think that's the case at all."

Citing "an extensive conversation on the telephone" on Wednesday with the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Gates said the military leader supported President Barack Obama's preference to take time to review strategy before weighing a request for more troops.

"General McChrystal was very explicit in saying that he thinks this assessment, this review that's going on right now is exactly the right thing to do," Gates told ABC television's "This Week" in an interview taped Friday and broadcast on Sunday.

"He obviously doesn't want it to be open-ended or be a protracted kind of thing."

The Pentagon chief mentioned no deadline but said he expected the White House strategy review would take "a few weeks" before he would present Obama with the commander's request for more troops and resources.

Amid reports of frustration among senior U.S. military officers with the White House, McChrystal warned in an assessment of the war that without more troops in the next year, the NATO-led mission could fail.

The general is expected to ask for 10,000 to 40,000 additional forces to help turn the tide against Islamist insurgents, but the exact number remains unclear.

The pace for decision-making under former President George W. Bush on the Iraq war was slower, with the debate on strategy in 2006 lasting three months, said Gates, who served as defense chief under the previous administration.

He also appeared to reject a possible alternative "counter-terrorism" approach to the war that would focus on hunting down al-Qaida figures and rely on air power instead of a large counter-insurgency force.

"I think that the people that I've talked to in the Pentagon who are the experts on counter-terrorism essentially say that counter-terrorism is only possible if you have the kind of intelligence that allows you to target the terrorists," he said.

"And the only way you get that intelligence is by being on the ground — getting information from people like the Afghans or, in the case of Iraq, the Iraqis.

"And so you can't do this from a distance or remotely, in the view of virtually all of the experts that I've talked to," he added.

The counterterrorism approach has the support of some lawmakers, reportedly including Vice President Joe Biden.

Obama warned on Friday that there are no "perfect answers" in Afghanistan, where an increasingly violent insurgency is challenging the Kabul government in the south and east.

The president faces growing doubts in his own party about the war amid rising casualties, public opposition to deploying more troops and a disputed Afghan election plagued by allegations of fraud.

Gates, whose advice could be crucial for Obama's decision, has yet to declare his position publicly on sending in more troops to reinforce the U.S. contingent, which will reach 68,000 by the end of the year.

But he defended the mission, disagreeing with comparisons to the failed Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the Cold War.

Unlike the Soviets who "conducted a war of terror against Afghans," he told CNN's "State of the Union" that "the Afghans continue to see us as their ally and partner."

The Afghanistan strategy that Obama unveiled in March "is the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s," Gates said.

Under the previous administration, the United States was focused on Iraq and lacked troops and a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan, he said, noting that "the reality is, we were fighting a holding action."

Asked about calls from some members of Congress to set a deadline for a U.S. withdrawal, Gates warned any such move would be a "strategic mistake."

"The reality is, failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States," he said.

If Obama approves reinforcements for Afghanistan, Gates said additional troops would not arrive until January.

--AFP

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