Gates: It is not time to get out of Afghanistan

The Defense secretary responded Thursday to mounting doubts about the war by saying that the US must stay in order to defeat Al Qaeda, which remains a threat.

Jim Young / Reuters
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (l.) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen take questions during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington on Thursday.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates responded to growing concerns about the US mission in Afghanistan by making one of his most forceful arguments for why Americans must stay.

It was terrorists enjoying safe haven in Afghanistan who struck at the US on 9/11 – the first significant attack on the continental US since the War of 1812, Mr. Gates pointed out to reporters at the Pentagon Thursday. The US is not in Afghanistan to do nation-building, he added, but to help build Afghan government's capacity to protect itself from Al Qaeda and other groups – which, in turn, is in the US' best interests.

"I absolutely do not think it is time to get out of Afghanistan," Gates said.

Polls show that the American public has its doubts. Some 57 percent of respondents to a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll say they oppose the war.

Political critics on the left and right, too, have become more vocal. Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin has called for an "flexible timetable for withdrawing US forces, and conservative commentator George Will said in a column this week that it is time to pull troops out.

Gates's comments Thursday appeared to set the stage for next week, when he will submit to the White House his formal recommendations for the Afghan war. It will be based on the recently submitted assessment by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US forces in the country. There is little doubt that McChyrstal will request for additional troops – likely between 25,000 and 30,000.

These would be in addition to the troops President Obama authorized this spring, which will bring the US total force in Afghanistan to 68,000 by the fall.

Mr. Obama has consistently pledged to commit more resources to Afghanistan. But few administration officials have expressed strong opinions about staying in Afghanistan, leading to speculation that the White House may be getting cold feet about what has been termed "Obama's War."

The polls suggest that Americans would not back the rumored move to send more troops. A recent CBS poll showed that 25 percent of Americans believed more troops should be sent to Afghanistan. Some 41 percent said the number of troops should be decreased. The CNN poll shows that 46 percent disapprove of the way Obama is handling the war.

"The fact that Americans would be tired of having their sons and daughters at risk and in battle is not surprising," said Gates.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stressed that the mission in Afghanistan had long been under-resourced. That has contributed to what he recently called a "deteriorating" situation.

But the mission is receiving fresh momentum. "We've got new leadership, new strategy, resources moving in," said Mullen. "And I think this approach has great potential, but it's going to take some time to start to turn this."

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