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Gates Signals Openness to Adding Troops in Afghanistan

September 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Thursday he would be open to sending more troops to Afghanistan, despite mounting questions on the war.
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JIM LEHRER: Pentagon leaders today sought to shore up support for the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. They said the new strategy needs more time, and they left the door open to asking for more troops.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: After nearly eight years, 738 American deaths, and a record number of U.S. forces now on the ground, today’s Pentagon briefing focused on a still-secret assessment of the war now being reviewed by President Obama.

It was authored by General Stanley McChrystal, overall commander in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged the report shows the fight is not going well, but he rejected calls to pull out.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. Secretary of Defense: I don’t believe that the war is slipping through the administration’s fingers. And I think it’s important — first of all, the nation has been at war for eight years.

The fact that Americans would be tired of having their sons and daughters at risk and in battle is not surprising. I think what is important is for us to be able to show over the months to come that the president’s strategy is succeeding.

KWAME HOLMAN: That strategy, begun last spring, sent another 21,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan. But casualties also have been rising, with two more Americans killed in a bombing today.

Currently, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan stands at 62,000 troops. It’s set to reach an all-time high of 68,000 by the end of the year. Still, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, said today it’s not the size of the force, but how General McChrystal uses it.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: It should come as no surprise to anyone that he intends to use those forces under his command to protect the Afghan people, to give them the security they need to reject the influence the Taliban seeks.

Now, you have heard me talk for much of the last two years about Afghanistan. You know how much I remain concerned about the situation there. There is a sense of urgency. Time is not on our side.

KWAME HOLMAN: Admiral Mullen conceded, it’s up to Congress to go along with a request for more troops, if the president and McChrystal ask for them.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: Congress will respond as — as they see fit with respect to that. I’m very aware of the debate. I’m raised — I’m a Vietnam veteran. I’m raised in a country that — that actually cherishes that debate. That said, from a military perspective, again, we have a mission that we’re doing the best we possibly can to carry out.

KWAME HOLMAN: U.S. leaders also are dealing with allegations of gross misconduct by private guards at the American Embassy in Kabul. Gates today was guarded in his response.

ROBERT GATES: I don’t think we have the information to — to be able to say what ought to be done. But, if those allegations are true, those activities are not just offensive to Afghans and Muslims; they’re offensive to us, and — and inexcusable.

KWAME HOLMAN: The secretary did say he plans to give President Obama his own assessment of the overall situation in Afghanistan early next week.

American 'footprint' in Afghanistan

Mark Thompson
Time Magazine
[A]s recently as Monday, Secretary Gates was in Fort Worth, where he was stressing concerns over the size of the American footprint in Afghanistan, the number of troops.

JIM LEHRER: We get more now from Mark Thompson, national security correspondent for TIME magazine.

Mark, welcome again.

What -- on the troops issues, what exactly was the message that Secretary -- Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen were giving today?

MARK THOMPSON, TIME magazine: Well, as recently as Monday, Secretary Gates was in Fort Worth, where he was stressing concerns over the size of the American footprint in Afghanistan, the number of troops.

Today, for the first time, he began speaking of the nature of this footprint, suggesting that, with McChrystal's kinder, gentler strategy toward the Afghan people, maybe the ultimate size, the ultimate troop numbers won't count so much.

JIM LEHRER: So, in other words, this isn't a combat mission, then, that he's talking about in terms of the number of troops. He's talking about something else.

MARK THOMPSON: Well, he's talking about training Afghan forces to take over for the Americans, as well as protecting the Afghan people, and making them safe from the Taliban and al Qaida.

JIM LEHRER: Now, he's talking, though, about the possibility of eventually having to ask for more troops, right?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes. General McKiernan, who preceded General McChrystal, was going to get -- or wanted to get 10,000 more troops in 2010. That was put on hold a year ago.

That is apparently working its way through the chain again. General McChrystal is likely to ask for at least 10,000 and maybe as many as 20,000 or 40,000 additional forces.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think the way Admiral Mullen brought up the Vietnam analogy?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, I noticed that, today, Gates said it isn't right, really, to compare Afghanistan with Iraq.

But, yes, Admiral Mullen was talking about comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam. And I can remember being in the Pentagon 20 years ago, when Colin Powell came out and basically said, we have kicked the Vietnam syndrome. But, apparently, it's coming back to haunt the military and the U.S. government again.

JIM LEHRER: Well, when Mullen uses this term time is not on our side, how should that be read?

MARK THOMPSON: I think, basically, if you talk to people in the military, as well as in Afghanistan, they realize they now have a set period of time to stop things from getting worse, to stop deteriorating, as Admiral Mullen keeps saying.

And the sense you get is, they have got about a year to do that. And then they have got another year to begin showing improvement, so, maybe two years at the outside. But, by this time next year, if things aren't stable, this mission is likely to be in a tailspin.

The McChrystal report

Mark Thompson
Time Magazine
[T]he sense is, it's going to get better before it gets worse, just like it did in Iraq at the time of the surge.

JIM LEHRER: This McChrystal report, it's still -- quote -- "secret."

MARK THOMPSON: Right.

JIM LEHRER: What -- but there's been all kinds of talk about it. What can you tell us about that we don't already know?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, the key thing is, it doesn't contain any troop numbers. Those are likely to come in the weeks to come. Basically, it's a codification of what he's already been talking about, in terms of what he sees his mission and how he can best accomplish it.

The key is training more Afghans, both in an Afghan national police, as well as the Afghan national army, to pick up the slack, because, right now, there aren't near enough foreign forces, even with 40,000 NATO troops in there with the 62,000 Americans -- 62,000 American troops to get the job done.

JIM LEHRER: And the job is to protect the Afghan -- not only the -- the Afghan civilians. They use Americans and Afghan forces to do that, right?

MARK THOMPSON: Right.

I mean, right now, in Afghanistan, down around Kandahar and other places, especially in the south, you have got the Taliban running the show. They are imposing taxation. They are carrying out justice. So long as that's happening, the central government in Kabul doesn't have a chance. And that's the -- the problem they have got to get their hands around.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any word on the -- from the Pentagon about the escalation of the combat itself that's resulting in these -- these unexpected -- is it correct to say unexpected casualties from American troops, particularly the Marines in that particular area?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, McChrystal is going places where American troops have not been before.

A lot of American troops in -- in the recent past have been in Eastern Afghanistan, trying to keep bad guys from coming in from Pakistan. That hasn't done much to protect the Afghan population. They knew when they moved into Helmand Province that casualties, U.S. casualties, were going to go up, because, all of a sudden, they were challenging the Taliban on the Taliban's home turf.

So, the sense is, it's going to get better before it gets worse, just like it did in Iraq at the time of the surge.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Mark, thanks again.

MARK THOMPSON: Thank you, Jim