U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the current review of U.S. and
NATO strategy in Afghanistan should remain private, and that the military
will do whatever the president orders. But in a speech in Washington
Monday, he also repeated his opposition to an approach advocated by
some officials that would rely more on air power.
Secretary Gates told a U.S. Army convention that Afghanistan has been on a "worrisome trajectory" with violence up 60 percent compared to last year. He said U.S. troops fighting terrorism around the world are facing "increasingly battle-hardened and lethal enemies."
The secretary told the gathering that the decisions President Barack Obama will make in the coming weeks "will be among the most important of his presidency," and he needs to take the time to get the decisions right.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday the president is not considering a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The addition of 21,000 troops President Obama approved earlier this year, and more aggressive operations against the Taliban and related groups, resulted in a sharp rise in U.S. casualties in recent months, including 16 killed in the first few days of October. That's the same number killed in all of October last year.
Senior commanders have recommended continuing the counterinsurgency approach, focusing on ground operations and requiring a further increase of U.S. troops. But Secretary Gates says whatever the president decides, the military will comply.
"It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike, provide our best advice to the president candidly, but privately. And, speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander-in-chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability," Gates said.
The secretary has joined military commanders in criticizing proposals to make more use of air strikes to target terrorist leaders in Afghanistan, and to limit ground operations in order to reduce casualties and avoid the need to send more troops. A month ago, Gates said one such proposal was not in accord with reality.
He did not discuss specific options on Monday, but speaking about plans to further modernize U.S. Army capabilities, he said this:
"We must always recognize the limits of technology - and be modest about what military force alone can accomplish. Advances in precision, sensor information, and satellite technologies have led to extraordinary gains that will continue to give the U.S. military an edge over its adversaries. But no one should ever neglect the psychological, cultural, political, and human dimensions of war or succumb to the techno-optimism that has muddled strategic thinking in the past," Gates said.
Secretary Gates will join President Obama and other senior civilian and military leaders at two lengthy White House meetings this week to continue discussing the way forward in Afghanistan. Officials say there will be at least two more meetings after that, and they expect the president to decide how to proceed within a few weeks.