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Afghanistan war decision: how Robert Gates thinks

Pentagon chief Robert Gates is the swing vote in Obama's decision on the Afghanistan war.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 2, 2009

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on the ground with troops in southern Iraq last July.

Jim Watson/AP

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On one of Bob Gates's first trips to the Iraq war theater after accepting the job as Defense secretary in 2006, he walked a dusty "boneyard" in Kuwait filled with row upon row of the remains of military trucks damaged by roadside bombs and seemed to hear the ghosts of the soldiers the trucks had failed to protect.

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The vehicles, recalls a senior adviser who accompanied Mr. Gates, "looked like they'd been mangled by the hand of a giant child." The shredded metal seemed to be a reminder of the billions the Pentagon was spending on the war while failing to adequately protect its own troops – and Gates was intensely moved. Mary Beth Long, the official accompanying him that day, jotted down just two words about her boss: "silent" and "determined."

The episode reinforced for the secretary what had to be done. He went home resolved to put life-saving, bomb-resistant trucks in the hands of troops within months. And he did, in record time, by overhauling the Pentagon's byzantine acquisition process. Within five months, the Pentagon had sent nearly 1,200 of the new trucks to Iraq, thanks to an expedited acquisition program that shaved years off the process.

That moment of silent determination reflects the essential Gates – a reserved former Eagle Scout who has established impressive management muscle working his way through the ranks of the United States security establishment. He has changed a Defense Department steeped in its own inefficiency one $400 Pentagon hammer at a time – even one general at a time, firing them when necessary. And that low-key but powerful style is now on display in the Washington debate over what strategy President Obama should take to win the war in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Gates – a former intelligence analyst-turned-CIA director, a Sovietologist with an instinct for reading signs, a consummate Washington insider unstained by party ideology – is the man of the hour, considered the bridge between the Pentagon brass and the Democratic White House.

The Defense secretary's role in shaping Mr. Obama's policy in Afghanistan is seen as a swing vote among the president's counselors on the question at hand: Whether to send a surge of tens of thousands more troops to support the current counterinsurgency against the Taliban or to overhaul the mission entirely.

Gates has almost certainly made up his mind. But unlike his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who telegraphed his decisionmaking process through bluster and ideology, Gates is true to his spycraft roots, discreetly looking for signals to find the right way to play his hand with a divided White House.

FRIENDS AND FORMER EMPLOYEES make much of that contrast with Mr. Rumsfeld – whom Gates replaced during President Bush's first term. While Rumsfeld relied on a cadre of aides, Gates keeps more of his own counsel and has an enduring hunger for information. And that has helped stoke the suspense surrounding Obama's protracted decisionmaking.

Career arc of a Pentagon chief

• Born 1943, Wichita, Kan.

• BA in history ,1965, The College of William & Mary; Master’s in history, Indiana University, 1966; Doctorate in Russian and Soviet history, Georgetown University, 1974

• Air Force,1967-68

• CIA Soviet analyst, 1968-74

• National Security Council staff under Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, 1974-79

• CIA deputy director, 1982

• Deputy national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush (1989–91)

• CIA director under President George H.W. Bush, 1991-93

• Interim dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, 1999-2001

• President of Texas A&M University, 2002-06

• Secretary of Defense (2006–present) for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama