Libya, Afghanistan Top Gates' Agenda

Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to Afghanistan this week and then to a NATO meeting, where Libya was at the top of the agenda. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman speaks with guest host Linda Wertheimer about the key moments during Gates' week.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is trying to wind down one war and avoid getting dragged into another. The secretary was on the road all week - first in Afghanistan then at a NATO meeting in Europe, where Libya was topic number one. It was an important trip.

We're going to go back and look at key moments from the week because the secretary offered some hints about how American troops and forces are going to be used abroad.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins me now. Tom, welcome.

TOM BOWMAN: Good to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Let's start with Libya. There's a lot of pressure for the United States to support a no-fly zone there. Mr. Gates met with other defense ministers at NATO. Did they decide anything?

BOWMAN: All they decided was to keep planning and to be ready to move quickly if this thing moves forward, if there's a lot more killing on the ground. Now, Gates has been reluctant to head down this path of a no-fly zone. First of all, it's very complex; he worries about stretching military. But perhaps most importantly, it's an act of war.

To put this into effect, he says, you'd have to take out the Libyan radar installations, take out their missile sites. So, it seems that NATO has set a pretty fairly high bar for acting militarily.

Here's Secretary Gates a couple days ago. Let's listen to what he says.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): We all agreed that NATO will only act if there is demonstrable need, a sound legal basis, and strong regional support. We also agreed to continue planning for all military options.

BOWMAN: Now, listen to what he said: Demonstrable need. Essentially what Gates is saying is the carnage hasn't reached a level where the U.S. or NATO has to get in there. There hasn't been wholesale slaughter of civilians like we saw in the Balkans.

WERTHEIMER: Secretary Gates also talked about a sound legal basis, meaning what? The United States won't act without international support?

BOWMAN: That's right. It would need some sort of sanction from the U.N. or some other body. Now, here's Secretary Gates again.

Sec. GATES: We wanted to put ourselves in a position to assist the Arab League, the African Union or the U.N. in this endeavor and very sensitive to NATO and being responsive to those organizations, rather than taking an initiative on its own.

BOWMAN: So, what they want is someone to step forward, some international organization. Now, they're not expecting it from the U.N. because China and Russia are pretty much against it. They have veto power. So, it would have to be some other group.

WERTHEIMER: So, is it fair to say the Pentagon really does not want to do this but is going to plan for it anyway?

BOWMAN: That's right. Again, Gates is reluctant. You've seen Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and some in the Obama administration move more in the direction. But, again, if the killing reaches an intolerable level like the Balkans we saw with Srebrenica, with the massacre there, they would have to act.

So, right now, what are they looking at? How to put a no-fly zone into effect, the basing the rights that would be needed, let's say, in Italy, the number of refueling tankers, how many planes each nation would offer. There's a U.S. carrier nearby in the Red Sea, the USS Enterprise. That could move fairly quickly.

But here's the thing: Even if you put a no-fly zone into effect, it wouldnt do anything for the tanks and the helicopters the Libyans are using to kill the rebels.

WERTHEIMER: Now, earlier in the week, Secretary Gates was in Afghanistan, and the big question there is is there progress in the war?

BOWMAN: Well, he went around the country. He met with President Karzai; he met with U.S. commanders all around the country. Generally, what they're saying is things are getting better. Of course, there was a surge of U.S. troops last year - an additional 30,000 troops. They spread out mostly in the south and they've taken back a lot of turf from the Taliban.

But Gates is still cautious about what they've achieved so far. Here he is.

Sec. GATES: I do feel like the pieces are coming together but I would continue to say what we've said all along. The gains are fragile and reversible. The fight this spring and this summer is going to be very tough. We expect the Taliban to try and take back much of what they've lost.

WERTHEIMER: Can the Taliban take back what it lost?

BOWMAN: That is the key question for the spring: How many fighters will they put on the battlefield; can they win back any of the area that they've lost?

The other thing they're looking at is they believe the Taliban will come up with new tactics. So, rather than going after U.S. forces or Afghan forces, they'll target Afghan leaders to create that sort of unease among Afghans that there really isn't better security.

WERTHEIMER: So, given all that, will the United States be able to bring home troops this summer as President Obama has pledged to do?

BOWMAN: They expect some troops to come out in July but probably not too many. They're still worried about an increase in fighting in the spring and summer. So, most people I've talked with say look to the fall for a larger reduction in U.S. forces.

And one of the things Gates has been concerned about is there's too much talk from the NATO allies about leaving Afghanistan and not about getting the job done correctly. Canadians have already pulled out their combat troops; the Dutch have already pulled out. And the Americans have effectively kicked this can down the road to 2014. That's when they hope the Afghans will be able to take over security for the whole country.

But as Gates said, he believes the Americans will be there after 2014 in some capacity.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Linda.

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