Gates, Mullen Urge Patience In Afghan War
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A lot of the concerns, we just heard, were raised yesterday at the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, took questions about Afghanistan.
NPR's Mary Louise Kelly was among the reporters asking those questions and she joins us now. Good morning.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Okay, so I have some questions for you, and let's start with that argument that the U.S. should be bringing troops home rather than pouring more in.
KELLY: Right. And that is an argument that is gaining traction on the left, as we just heard in Tom's piece, also, on the right - it's in some conservative circles. Columnist George Will made waves this week when he called for a substantial reduction of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. And at the Pentagon, Secretary Gates was asked specifically about that. Here's what he said:
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): I have a lot of respect for Mr. Will, but in this case I do disagree with him. I absolutely do not think it is time to get out of Afghanistan. And I think that the notion that you can conduct a purely counterterrorist kind of campaign and do it from a distance simply does not accord with reality.
KELLY: So, that's the defense secretary. And his point is if the goal is defeating al-Qaida, you've got to be on the ground to do it and getting the intel that you need to do it and talking to local Afghans. Overall, Renee, the general tone we were hearing yesterday from the Pentagon is there is no chance. That it doesn't look like we're going to hear about troop reductions in Afghanistan anytime soon.
MONTAGNE: Well, what did Gates have to say about the question of increasing troop levels - that is, whether it will take any more troops to get the job done.
KELLY: Right. And they wouldn't touch that directly. I think there's a concern about not wanting to preempt General Stanley McChrystal, who is the new top commander on the ground in Afghanistan. He, we're expecting, is going to ask for more troops. He's going to say he needs, we're told, maybe 10,000, maybe more extra troops.
Secretary Gates himself was sounding, yesterday, much more open to that than he has in the past. He has in the past expressed a lot of concern about the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan that you could send in too many troops, have too large a presence and alienate the local population.
But the message yesterday was don't worry so much about the size of the force there, worry about what they do, how they act. That if they can reduce civilian casualties, as they're really trying to do - if they can convince the Afghans they're there as partners, not occupiers - then increasing troop levels may be, from the Pentagon's point of view, okay.
MONTAGNE: And the concern we just heard Congressman McGovern raise, that there's no end in sight, no clearly defined missions.
KELLY: Right. We asked about this yesterday. Admiral Mullins, Secretary Gates both said, look, from their point of view the mission is crystal clear. It's what the president has articulated; it is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida.
Now, how you measure whether the U.S. is actually succeeding at doing that is a fair question. And I think what we're looking ahead to is later this month, September 24th, is the deadline for when the administration is supposed to produce this list of benchmarks. That the specific measurements that are tracking how the U.S. is doing. So, we hope to be able to take a look at those later this month, see some of the specific goals that the administration is trying to hold itself to.
MONTAGNE: And, Mary Louise, I gather that Secretary of Defense Gates was asked about whether the war was - and I'm quoting - "slipping between the administration's fingers." How did he respond to that?
KELLY: He was asked about that, not surprisingly. He denied that the war is slipping between the administration's fingers. I think the overall message that they want to convey is everybody needs to have a little bit of patience. Give this new strategy time to work.
Certainly, Secretary Gates said he's mindful - time is limited - mindful that U.S. casualties are mounting. But he said, look, this can work; it's going to take some time.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.
KELLY: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
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