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U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton made a rare joint public appearance Monday, telling an audience at George Washington University American goals in Afghanistan are not changing, as President Barack Obama and his top advisers examine how they want to pursue those goals. The two secretaries spoke for more than an hour at the event, which was recorded for broadcast on CNN.
The two cabinet secretaries say the United States still wants to deter, defeat and dismantle the al-Qaida terrorist network, as President Obama said in his statement on strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March. But they say things have changed in Afghanistan since then and Secretary Clinton told the audience of mostly students that it makes sense to examine the strategy and tactics being used to achieve those goals.
"What we're going through in asking ourselves, 'Okay, we know what the goal is, is what we're going most likely to achieve that goal, is what a very decisive and intelligent commander-in-chief would do," Clinton said. "So we're going to come up with the best approach, but the goal remains the same."
Neither official would provide any insight into the closed-door White House deliberations on the way forward in Afghanistan, which are expected to be concluded within the next few weeks. But Secretary Gates, who has served numerous presidents in a 43-year government career, endorsed the idea of asking fundamental questions.
"The notion of being willing to pause, reassess basic assumptions, reassess the analysis and then make those decisions, seems to me, given the importance of these decisions, which I've said are probably among the most important he will make in his entire presidency, seems entirely appropriate," Gates said.
Secretary Gates says a re-evaluation is particularly appropriate because security has deteriorated more than expected in Afghanistan. And, the Afghan election, which he describes as "flawed," has further complicated the situation. But he echoed what the White House spokesman said Monday, that the United States is not considering withdrawing from the region, but rather how it will move ahead toward its goals. He calls U.S. determination to stay in Afghanistan and to continue building its relationship with Pakistan a "long term…strategic objective."
The defense secretary has given several hints of his views on the way forward in Afghanistan, including a speech earlier Monday in which he cautioned against an over-reliance on air power and high technology, which some officials believe should be used more in Afghanistan, instead of the additional troops the U.S. and NATO commander there wants. Secretary Gates notes that the current and former Afghanistan commanders have both limited offensive air strikes in order to reduce civilian casualties.
While the top-level process is continuing, Washington is consumed with a debate about whether the president should send more troops as the commanders want or take the air power and high technology route. Secretary Gates says President Obama has pledged to give all the time necessary to allow the commanders to make their case, before he decides.
The two secretaries also welcome the recent agreements regarding Iran's nuclear program, but both also indicate they remain skeptical about Iran's intentions. Secretary Clinton says the process of getting Iran to submit to inspections and to get rid of its enriched uranium is not "finished until it's finished" and that it is not clear whether the Iranian government is sincere about wanting to resolve the dispute. Secretary Gates says he believes Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons and that the international community must keep it on "tight enough deadlines and specific enough requirements" to determine whether its government is seriously interested in taking a different course.