Top U.S. Officials Optimistic About Afghanistan

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen testified before the House Armed Services on military strategy in Afghanistan. Both officials believe there is reason for cautious optimism in Afghanistan.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's talk about another violent country, Afghanistan, where to hear to Afghan officials tell it, they're making some progress against the Taliban. The Islamist group that was driven from power in 2001 came back to power in a portion of the country. It controlled a southern Afghan town for most of this year. But in the last few days, NATO and Afghan forces say they recaptured that town, and now they claim they killed a number of Taliban fighters in a battle nearby.

So that's the state of action this week as two top American officials testified about the situation. One was the Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

And NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz listened in.

GUY RAZ: Almost a year has past since Robert Gates arrived to the Pentagon. He's worked hard to cultivate an image of a man above Washington's partisan politics. And to a large extent, it's worked. On Capitol Hill, he's practically a rock star. House and Senate Democrats love the defense secretary, and they love him not because of who Robert Gates is necessarily, but because of who he isn't. And who he isn't is Donald Rumsfeld, the man who never hid his contempt for Congress. Gates is patient. And yesterday, he put that patience on display when asked this question by Georgia Congressman Phil Gingrey…

Representative PHIL GINGREY (Republican, Georgia): Secretary Gates, you mentioned, I think, a couple of times during the hearing that you didn't think that the Taliban could win militarily. I'm grateful that you're our guy and not their guy. But if you were their guy, how would you recommend they proceed to win? What would the playbook look like?

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): Well, I'm glad I don't have a really specific plan, because I don't think I'd want to give it to them.

RAZ: To his credit, Gates went on to advise the Taliban not to confront the military might of NATO-led forces head on. Now, compared to Iraq, Afghanistan is like the middle child - important, and somewhat neglected. It's a neglect acknowledged by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen.

Admiral MICHAEL MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): Our main focus, militarily, in the region and in the world right now is rightly and firmly in Iraq. That is not to say the brave men and women in harm's way in Afghanistan are not valued or supported or in any way less important. It is simply a matter of resources, of capacity. In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.

RAZ: While the generals in Iraq have achieved recent tactical successes, Afghanistan is a different story, a country of ignominious superlatives. The world's leading exporter of opium - the highest levels of violence in a decade - and rising support for the Taliban among a population angered by deadly NATO air strikes.

But it's not so black and white. There's an almost schizophrenic set of indicators like, for example, a recent BBC poll that showed three quarters of Afghans strongly back the international military presence in their country and an increasingly competent and committed Afghan national army. And Gates noted some of those confusing trends. You'll hear him refer to ISAF, which is what NATO is called in Afghanistan.

Sec. GATES: In 2007, the number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan increased. The insurgents have resorted more and more to suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices similar to those found in Iraq. As I learned during my visit, some of the up tick can be attributed to increased Afghan and ISAF operations.

RAZ: Gates heads to Scotland later this week, where he'll hold talks with NATO allies about the situation in Afghanistan. U.S. troops make up a little more than half of all the foreign forces in that country. Gates has tried to convince NATO allies to send more of their own, but until now, his appeals have fallen on deaf ears.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

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