U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told an American veterans' group Tuesday it is not time to celebrate victory in Iraq, even though the U.S. combat mission is formally ending. Gates spoke Tuesday to the annual meeting of the American Legion in the midwestern U.S. city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Secretary Gates called Wednesday's formal handover in Baghdad the moment both countries have been working for and hoping for, a moment he said was "made possible by the dramatic security gains of the last three-and-a-half years."
He said attacks are at their lowest levels since the beginning of the war in 2003, in spite of the recent series of incidents. He also noted that U.S. forces have not had to call in an air strike anywhere in Iraq for more than six months, and he said the remnants of al-Qaida's Iraqi organization have been cut off from its commanders abroad.
Still, he warned, all is not well in Iraq. He noted the ongoing political stalemate and lingering sectarian tensions, and he said al-Qaida in Iraq is "beaten, but not gone."
"This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulation, even as we reflect with pride on what our troops and their Iraqi partners have accomplished. We still have a job to do and responsibilities there," said the defense secretary.
Gates said the U.S. military will continue to work with the Iraqi Army and police forces, to train the Iraqi Navy and Air Force, and to help with operations against terrorist groups. He noted that so far 4,427 U.S. troops have been killed in the war, and more than 34,000 have been injured, some of them very seriously.
The secretary also said the Iraq War diverted American attention and resources from Afghanistan, where he said U.S. troops defeated the Taliban in 2001 and 2002, only to see the group reestablish itself and escalate its insurgency. That is a problem the United States is able to address only now, with a decreased troop commitment in Iraq.
The last of the additional forces President Barack Obama ordered to Afghanistan are just arriving, and the next 12 months will be critical in the effort to demonstrate the same type of counterinsurgency approach can work there that worked in Iraq. The troop increase, designed to fight the insurgents and enable engagement with local people in key areas, brings the American total close to 100,000, with nearly 50,000 more from other allied countries. Secretary Gates noted that is more than three times as many as when he took office not quite four years ago.
Still, he he said a "tough, hard campaign" lies ahead in Afghanistan, "with its share of setbacks and heartbreak." "Success there is not inevitable. But with the right strategy and the willingness to see it through, it is possible. And it is worth the fight," he said.
Gates called victory in Afghanistan "essential to the safety of the United States." He said it would deliver "a strategic defeat to al-Qaida," roll back Taliban gains, and build Afghanistan's ability to defend itself and prevent the re-establishment of terrorist safe havens like the one the Taliban provided to al-Qaida to plan and launch the September 11th attacks on the United States in 2001.