Secretary Gates On Afghanistan Mission, Iraq Exit

President Obama has agreed to send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and has said it's possible the U.S. might reach out to some elements of the Taliban. On Tuesday, Vice President Biden asked NATO allies to provide more support to counter the "deteriorating situation" there.

These moves have raised questions about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says that the administration is currently reviewing it.

"I would say that, at a minimum, the mission is to prevent the Taliban from retaking power against a democratically elected government in Afghanistan and thus turning Afghanistan, potentially, again, into a haven for al-Qaida and other extremist groups," Gates told NPR's Robert Siegel in an interview at the Pentagon.

Gates says he believes NATO plans to commit more troops to the country, especially to provide security for elections in August.

"I'm not sure that they'll be there for a prolonged period of time," Gates said. "I'll leave it to them to make the announcements, but I think they are going to send more troops."

Gates says U.S. allies have sent the troops they have committed to send, but that the U.S. really needs help in the next weeks and months on the civilian side, with agricultural projects and economic development in particular.

"It hasn't been that they have failed to follow through on their commitments," he said. "It's that the need is greater than the commitments that have been made to this point. We would like the help."

In January, Gates dismissed the idea of transforming Afghanistan, which is terribly poor, into a kind of "Central Asian Valhalla," or a place that can be largely tribal and undemocratic as long as it doesn't harbor terrorists. He said at the time, "We will lose" if that happens.

But Gates tells NPR he meant that the U.S. has to have benchmarks to measure near- and mid-term progress regarding security and credibility of the Afghanistan government.

"Really, what I was trying to differentiate was goals that are 10 or 20, 30 years in the future in terms of a completely democratic, corruption-free, fully economically developed ally," Gates says. "That's the Valhalla, and I think that's a little ways in the distance."

The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for about seven years, but the situation started to go "downhill" in 2005 and 2006, Gates says, when the Taliban "began to take advantage of their safe haven on the Pakistani side of the border to begin to re-infiltrate into Afghanistan and create security problems."

Gates says it's fair to say that there have been two phases to the war: the relatively successful beginning and then the resurgence of the Taliban. As for the third phase, Gates says, "Clearly we all still have our work cut out for us."

End Not Necessarily In Sight In Iraq

With regard to Iraq, Gates noted that under the Status of Forces agreement, all U.S. troops will be out by the end of 2011. Gates says he's on the same page as Obama with the withdrawal and, barring a new agreement with the Iraqis, there will be zero troops in Iraq by that time. But he also speculates that the Iraqis could ask for logistical and intelligence support.

"The president's statement is absolutely clear and it conforms to our current commitments, that is, according to the agreements we have signed, we will have everyone out of Iraq by the end of 2011," Gates said. "And unless something changes, that is exactly what will happen. ...[A change] would have to be at the Iraqis' initiative. And the president will have to determine whether or not he wants to do that."

Intelligence Gathering Efforts

As for the future and what intelligence can tell him, Gates says the picture can be unclear. He says he sees flaws in intelligence.

"Intelligence ... [does] a so-so job of predicting the future," Gates says. "They really do a very good job of telling you what's happening now. [Regarding] forecasting, the truth of the matter is they're not better than anyone else. Too many policymakers I've seen over the years either expect too much or too little intelligence."

Gates says that some countries, like Iran, North Korea and Cuba, are more difficult to gauge than others.

"The truth of the matter is for decades our intelligence hasn't been terrific on some of these places," Gates says. "I think there is a lot of effort to try to make it better, but there are still a lot of uncertainties out there."

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