NPR logo Defense Sec Gates: Length Of U.S. Combat Stay In Afghanistan A 'Mystery'

Defense Sec Gates: Length Of U.S. Combat Stay In Afghanistan A 'Mystery'

Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls on a reporter during a briefing the at Pentagon, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009. Susan Walsh/AP Photo hide caption

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Susan Walsh/AP Photo

Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls on a reporter during a briefing the at Pentagon, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009.

Susan Walsh/AP Photo

Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked by a journalist Thursday how long U.S. troops will be in Afghanistan? His answer? It's a mystery.

Gates, the Central Intelligence Agency director during the George H. W. Bush administration, referred to that background to tell reporters at a press conference that some things just aren't knowable.

GATES: Well, I think, that's — you know, in the intelligence business, we always used to categorize information in two ways: secrets and mysteries. The secrets were things that were ultimately knowable. Mysteries were those where there were too many variables to predict. And I think that how long U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan is in that — is in that area.

In other words, Gates was essentially saying "Beats me" to the question of how long American troops will stay in Afghanistan. It's a mystery. Or, as his Pentagon predecessor Donald Rumsfeld might have said, it's a "known unknown."

In fairness to Gates, he wasn't being flip. Far from it. He was aiming for honesty in saying that the answer to the question of when the U.S. combat presence is Afghanistan will end has everything to do with the facts on the ground there.

More Gates:

GATES: I think that we are certainly hoping to see progress within a year, in terms of the new — the president's new strategy and General McChrystal's new strategy and tactics. And certainly it would be our hope that, assuming that we are moving in the right direction, that we would see a situation, as we have seen in Iraq, over the past two-and- a-half years, where more and more of the security responsibility will flow from international security forces to Afghan security forces.

I think that we all see — we and our allies, as well as the Afghans, see a significant pacing factor here to be the speed with which we can accelerate the growth of the Afghan National Army and Police.

And we have a lot of money in the budget to do that for fiscal year '10. And so I think that, you know, it's just not possible to predict specific periods of time when you're in a conflict like this, where the enemy has a vote and where there are so many variables. But I think — as I've said from the very beginning, I think that we need to be in a position to be able to show progress within a year.

But being in a position where we could completely be where we are in Iraq depends a lot on the political environment inside Afghanistan and also on the Afghan national security forces.