Afghanistan war decision: how Robert Gates thinks

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

Jim Watson/AP
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on the ground with troops in southern Iraq last July.
Bob Gates pitched in some spirit on the front line with his Aggies at a Texas A&M football game when he was president of the university in 2006.
Gerald Herbert/AP/File
Former President George W. Bush (center) replaced Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (left) with Robert M. Gates (right) just after the Republican losses in the 2006 midterm elections. The defeat forced the president to oust the unpopular Pentagon chief.
Getty Images
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates (second from left) attends a White House meeting on the crisis in Pakistan with President Obama (center) and other advisers.

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.

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.

Gates is a good example of the oft-cited Washington truism: The ones who talk, don't know; the ones who don't talk, do know.

But Gates, who declined a request for a Monitor interview, has talked some about Afghanistan. In the past, he has expressed concern about the size of the American "footprint" – worried that too many forces could look a lot like an occupation. Yet he has also said that the long-term needs of Afghanistan – good governance, economic opportunity, and a strong indigenous force – won't magically appear without the help of the US military stabilizing the country. In recent days, he's dodged questions about just what the noises in his head are saying. Asked by a reporter on a plane with him to Asia late last month "where he was" on the troop surge idea, Gates talked about the legitimacy of the Afghan government. Two days later, asked the same question after a meeting of NATO defense ministers, Gates wriggled: "I was in a listening mode."

It's not that he's slippery, just self-disciplined, say those who know him.

"He's been inside the Beltway his entire life and he knows how to play the cards and when to play them, and he will only telegraph to the decider," says one retired senior officer who served under Gates. "Rummy had his circle of good buddies who were easy to identify. Don't know that about Gates."

The Defense chief is not given to snap decisions, recalls Rob McKee, who served with Gates on the corporate board of Parker Drilling Company before he was named Defense secretary. But he says Gates does act decisively after a genuine effort to get as many facts as possible. And, adds Mr. McKee, who served as an adviser to the Iraqi oil ministry between 2003 and 2004, Gates – a registered Republican – takes pains never to show his politics.

"Who he is, his track record, his style, his intelligence, his bipartisanship, his experience and his proven low-key leadership style all would argue that he would be a much more credible broker than just about anyone," McKee wrote in an e-mail. "I bet he's doing his best to help come up with as right an answer as is possible."

And when he shares that conclusion with the president, he'll have great sway, says Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an admirer of Gates: "[He] is going to have a major say in this because ... he has the confidence of the president, he has the confidence of Congress, and he has an extraordinarily important position in this decision."

LITTLE ABOUT GATES ON THE OUTSIDE betrays the astute student and dealmaker on the inside. By all appearances, he's as vanilla as they come: Stout and round-faced with precision-parted hair and a preference for white shirts, he has a nasal twang from his native Kansas. He goes in for jigsaw puzzles over sports, and has a strong taste for meat and potatoes sometimes even in the most exotic locales.

His other ravenous appetite, say aides, is for information – and he sets aside time every day to read (right now, says Gates, he's into Douglas Brinkley's "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America"). He has a weakness for low-end escapist movies – such as "Iron Man" and "Wolverine" – but also recently saw and liked the more realistic "The Hurt Locker," about a US Army bomb squad in Iraq.

Gates himself jokes about the unassuming figure he cuts – once saying he was more like Austin Powers than James Bond when he flopped as a young spy and was funneled instead to the less glamorous toils of an intelligence analyst.

So inoffensive is his personality that even his political enemies seem to find no purchase for personal attack.

But it wasn't always that way. Earlier in his Washington career, Gates was thought to have played an active role in the Iran-contra affair, derailing his first confirmation as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. But an independent investigation cleared him, and President George H.W. Bush renominated him in 1991.

Cracks in Gates's bland facade often reveal the emotional complexity that makes him tick. He's so intensely compassionate that he can easily become choked up or cry. He's not without ego, say those who work with him, and they notice that when he's loosened up – notably after his iron-clad rituals of predinner cocktail and postdinner "cigar walk" – he enjoys holding forth among groups of people, telling jokes or stories from his illustrious career, less interested in a conversational give-and-take than in his own thoughts. And his temper, while usually contained verbally, can come out in fierce glares.

It's not that Gates never makes mistakes. As a member of the national security team in the late 1980s, he was in part responsible for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan that, it could be argued, led to it becoming a haven for Al Qaeda. But he'll admit to his mistakes, as in a speech last year when he acknowledged the US failing – and his role in it.

"The voice of Bob Gates is not the voice of God – and Bob Gates is the first to acknowledge that," says one Hill staffer.

His career arc also is full of that complexity. The Defense secretary now overseeing two war theaters not only served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War but also protested that war in a 1970 march against the Cambodia offensive.

Gates has served under eight presidents and turned down President George W. Bush's offers to run the Department of Homeland Security and later to be director of National Intelligence. He cited a reluctance to return to public life, but probably was awaiting a more important call.

He soon got it. After a bruising midterm election in 2006, Mr. Bush concluded that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had to go, and Gates was wooed away from his post as president of Texas A&M University to replace Rumsfeld.

He portrayed himself as a reluctant hero – wrenched from what he called the best job he'd ever had. He often referred to the stopwatch a deputy gave him that counted backward to the day when the Bush term would end and he'd be free to retire once again, to drive his SUV in the mountains and wooded groves of the Pacific Northwest, where he and his wife, Becky, own two homes and have two grown children living nearby.

But herein lies a contradiction about Gates. As much as he says he loathes Beltway politics and society, it's what defines him. He often jokes that the first six months in Washington you wonder how you got there, the second six months you wonder how everyone else got there, and the next six months you spend trying to get out of there. Funny when he tells it in the right crowd, it sometimes falls flat with military audiences. Either way, it's pure Gates shtick: making a show of despising Washington, while quietly working the city as few can.

At the same time, he shows genuine feeling for the troops. He personally handwrites letters to each family of those killed overseas. Like the episode in the Kuwait "boneyard," the secretary is frequently moved when speaking about the sacrifices of troops – whom he sometimes refers to as the "kids."

Ms. Long, a former assistant secretary of Defense, says Gates's leadership is unique in her experience: "He was not only a master of anticipating what the bureaucracy will do in a given situation, but on several occasions when, on a personal level, others were suffering, he expressed real sympathy and empathy."

There's much similar gushing across the capital about his abilities. Rumsfeld had so poisoned the well that Congress fell all over itself praising the new Defense secretary for his candor, integrity, and lack of combativeness. Though Gates may loathe Congress's lack of civility.

The Obama campaign liked what it saw and, after the election last year, the president-elect summoned Gates to a secret meeting at a fire station near Ronald Reagan National Airport to "re-up" the secretary. Accepting, Gates became the first Defense secretary in US history to be asked to stay on by a new administration.

Obama had promised during the campaign to draw down forces in Iraq and to fix Afghanistan. But if Bush turned to Gates as Iraq's "Mr. Fix-it," then Obama was turning to him to change the equation in Afghanistan.

Put simply, there are two poles in Washington: the counterinsurgency experts, or COIN-istas, who believe Afghanistan's deteriorating security can only be reversed by adding tens of thousands of troops – perhaps as many as 80,000; and those who believe US interests in Afghanistan are few, and the best way to keep it on a low simmer is to employ a counterterrorism-like model – using drones, bombs, and special forces teams to keep Al Qaeda at bay. The debate has become protracted, with military commanders like Gen. Stanley McChrystal politely urging the commander in chief to make a decision soon.

GATES'S SIGNAL TO THE DECIDER – Obama – will be decisive, say observers. His position will be informed by his own political instinct for timing, but also by his impeccably thorough listening process.

Richard Haass, a former senior director on the National Security Council, remembers Gates's knack for running a meeting. In his book "War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars," Mr. Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote about Gates's leadership skills and noted that he would allow people to be heard – but not to filibuster.

"Bob Gates ran a meeting as well as anyone I've ever worked with," says Haass, reading directly from a page in his book.

But Gates is fussy about preparation, demanding that his staff cancel a briefing if he hasn't been provided the right reading materials beforehand, says one senior officer who worked closely with Gates. "It would make him crazy."

It's not the highest compliment ever paid to an individual, but in the world of Washington bureaucracy, it's high praise. And for Bob Gates, it fits.

One of his chief roles is to demand accountability in a building peopled by career bureaucrats who know instinctively that they will outlast any civilian overseer – unless he beats them to the punch.

Gates has famously removed more than a half-dozen senior officers and civilian secretaries for underwhelming performance or just plain arrogance. Just ask Fran Harvey, the former Army secretary whom Gates fired over a Washington Post exposé of the squalid conditions of soldiers recovering from war wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Harder for even some of Gates's most die-hard fans was the summary firing of Gen. David McKiernan. Gates handpicked him to be the top commander in Afghanistan. By all accounts a fabulous officer with skill, intellect, and integrity, McKiernan was an armor officer by trade, and Gates concluded that he lacked the knack for counterinsurgency and had to go. Few dispute that the mission needed a new kind of blood – but Pentagon brass watched in horror in their E-ring offices as Gates announced McKiernan's firing on live TV.

More often, Gates's style of accountability is far more mundane. Last year, for example, he sent a memo to the Army secretary's office and when he hadn't heard anything back by the deadline he'd directed, Gates sent the memo again. This time it had a message handwritten across the top that couldn't have been plainer: "Pete," Gates scrawled in black ink, "Why hasn't this been answered yet?" A staffer who worked in the office recalled the startled reaction: "It was like a grenade went off inside the office."

Gates wanted answers and he didn't expect to have to wait for them.

That instinct has won him friends and enemies on Capitol Hill after he pushed through a $534 billion reform budget this year that cut many sacred cows (the presidential helicopter with a kitchen) and forced the services to add other programs that weren't seen as critical (dramatic expansion of the drone program).

Gates has marketed his brand of reform with a message that resonates: Buy stuff to support the two wars in which the US is engaged – particularly for troops fighting in the field – and ease up on the massive spending the Pentagon has allowed for rainy-day wars, like one with China. His ending the production of the $140-million-a-copy F-22 Raptor stealth fighter was an oft-cited case in point. Arguing that the US didn't need more than 187 planes to fight a notional war when, with limited resources, the Pentagon should be spending money to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates's version of common sense prevailed and he has – so far – successfully ended the program.

Instead he has focused the Pentagon's budget on things that many believe it more apparently needs – like those bomb-resistant trucks he wanted that day in Kuwait.

At a recent Washington conference, former Republican Congressman John McHugh, Obama's pick as secretary of the Army, cracked a joke to introduce Gates: "When Bob Gates changes a light bulb at the Pentagon, it's the building that rotates."

Inside, Gates may have felt the joke rather apt. At the podium, he accepted the characterization without apology.

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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


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