Afghanistan — not Iraq — presents the greatest military challenge facing the United States, Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
The last time Gates testified before members of Congress, he worked for President Bush. But as the sole Cabinet member to keep his job under President Obama, Gates is now speaking for a new administration. And he made plain that Iraq — the war that came to define the Bush presidency — is no longer the top military priority.
It was John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who set the tone for Tuesday's hearing. His first question to Gates was on Afghanistan.
"Mr. Secretary, I think it's important," McCain said. "The most important thing that I have to say to you today: The American people must understand this is a long, hard slog we're in, in Afghanistan."
That phrase — "a long, hard slog" — was famously used by Gates' predecessor as defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
But the Rumsfeld era felt very distant Tuesday. His name never actually came up at the Senate hearing.
Afghanistan Becomes New Priority
"There is little doubt that our greatest military challenge right now is Afghanistan," Gates said.
So how to meet that challenge? For starters, more troops. The U.S. has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan already. The top ground commander there, Gen. David McKiernan, has asked for 30,000 more. And Gates says he supports that request.
"We could have two of those brigades there probably by late spring," he said. "And potentially a third by midsummer."
But Gates said he's "very skeptical" that sending any more troops, beyond what McKiernan has asked for, would do much good.
Senators didn't press Gates too hard on the interesting pivot he's having to make — from serving Bush, who frequently cited Iraq as "the central front in the war on terror," to serving Obama, who clearly sees Afghanistan as the top overseas military priority.
Bracing For A Possibly Bloodier War
Gates did say, however, that Americans need to be realistic about what the end goal should be for Afghanistan.
"My own personal view is that our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and our allies," he said. "And whatever else we need to do flows from that objective. Afghanistan is the fourth- or fifth-poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose."
Because nobody has that kind of time, patience and money, Gates added.
Several senators praised Gates for his directness. Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked point-blank about the consequences of putting more troops in Afghanistan:
"Is it fair to say that casualties in Afghanistan are likely to go up?" Graham asked Gates.
"I think that's likely," Gates replied.
"And the amount of money we spend is likely to go up in the short term, maybe foreseeable future?" asked Graham.
"Yes, sir," said Gates.
Graham wasn't done. "Bottom line is, it's going to be tough, it's going to be difficult, in many ways harder than Iraq," Graham said. "Do you agree with that?"
"Yes," replied Gates.
Not that Iraq is easy. Gates noted that there's still potential for setbacks there — and that Americans should expect to stay involved in Iraq, on some level, for "many years to come."
Gates said the Pentagon is working on a range of options for pulling troops out of Iraq. Some would have combat troops out within 16 months — some significantly later. There are pros and cons to each. Obama will have the chance to hear more Wednesday, when he makes his first trip to the Pentagon, to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.