WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday outlined a complicated and at times contradictory set of goals for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, in a Capitol Hill appearance that highlighted the challenges the administration faces in devising a new U.S. strategy there.
Giving his first congressional testimony under his new boss, President Barack Obama, Gates called the Afghan army and police the "exit ticket for all of us," yet he conceded that the Afghan government is too poor to support those forces long term.
He called for a more unified command structure, implying direct U.S. command, and at the same time called on NATO countries to do become more assertive. He also said the U.S. needs more modest goals in Afghanistan even as it commits 30,000 more troops to tackle Afghanistan's complex drug trafficking network.
Gates, the sole holdover in the new cabinet, appeared before both the House and Senate armed services committees.
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With violence subsiding in Iraq, and Obama having campaigned for early troop withdrawal, the U.S. military is shifting its training and equipment toward Afghanistan. The U.S. plans to double its troop presence in Afghanistan to roughly 60,000 troops as early as the summer. Many of those troops will move toward southern Afghanistan, the heart of the opium poppy trade.
While the military has stressed that Afghanistan is not Iraq, lawmakers made frequent comparisons of the two wars, asking Gates what lessons, equipment and tactics from Iraq could be applied to Afghanistan.
Calling Afghanistan America's "greatest military challenge," Gates said the U.S. no longer could maintain the broad goal of nation building, as it did under the Bush administration. Instead, the goal must be for Afghanistan to no longer be a place where terrorists can plot attacks on the U.S.
To do that, U.S. and NATO forces must train Afghan security forces so they can take the lead, Gates said. He conceded, however, that maintaining those forces could cost as much as $4 billion in a country whose economy earns only $800 million a year.
Gates, wearing a brace after surgery on Friday to repair a torn tendon in his left arm, also called on NATO to provide more training, money to support the Afghan forces and more "caveat-free forces," a reference to the limits individual countries place on the deployment of their troops. He also said, however, that the overall military operation in Afghanistan needs more streamlined leadership and that a 40-member coalition made it harder for the U.S. to set the course there.
Gates also said he's concerned about civilian causalities, but he didn't back away from using airstrikes, which are some of the most common causes of civilian deaths.
He stressed that if the U.S. is seen as an occupying force, rather than one supporting the Afghan forces, "we will set ourselves up for failure."
Yet Gates also spelled out the U.S. push into southern Afghanistan, saying it must stop the Taliban from profiting from an expanding drug trafficking network. He also endorsed offering poppy farmers alternative crops, such as wheat.
"The Afghan people must believe this is their war and we are there to help them. If they think we are there for our own purposes, then we will go the way of every other foreign army that has been in Afghanistan," Gates said.
On Iraq, Gates said that the timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces hinges how the four Iraqi elections go in 2009, saying that if the violence subsides, the U.S. could withdrawal quicker. On Saturday, the Iraqis will hold the first of those elections.
Obama is scheduled to meet with the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon on Wednesday to discuss his strategy in Afghanistan.
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