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Military Experts Grade Secretary Gates’ Tenure

BY Larisa Epatko and Francine Uenuma  June 16, 2011 at 3:05 PM EDT

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen

Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed cautious optimism at the Pentagon news conference about the United States’ strained relationship with Pakistan, saying, “the long history of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has had its ebbs and flows,” with two wars with India, the Soviets’ exit from Afghanistan. But he said that despite a “complicated” relationship, “we need each other, and we need each other more than just in the context of Afghanistan. Pakistan is an important player in terms of regional stability and in terms of Central Asia.”

Watch Gates“The challenges aren’t going to go away, the region isn’t going to go away,” added Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, saying that if the U.S. “were it to break or were we to walk away, it’s a matter of time before the region is that much more dangerous and there would be a huge pull for us to half to return to protect our national interests.”

Gates also pointed out that Pakistan is contributing to the strategy in Afghanistan and has troops stationed near the border.

The secretary also was asked about Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy and now successor. “I’m not sure it’s a position anyone should aspire to, under the circumstances,” Gates said, adding that bin Laden had a “peculiar charisma” that he believes al-Zawahri lacks.

Nonetheless, al-Qaida is still a dangerous organization that “seeks to perpetuate itself, seeks to find replacements for those who have been killed, and remains committed to the agenda bin Laden put before them … it is a reminder that they’re still out there and we need to keep after them,” Gates said.

Gates urged persistence in Afghanistan. “There has never been a popular war in the United States in our whole history. They’ve all been controversial.” As for whether the war is succeeding, he said he “[tries] to stay away from loaded words like ‘winning’ or ‘losing’” but that the military is “successful in implementing the president’s strategy” of denying Taliban havens and building up Afghan security forces.

Gates is stepping down as defense secretary on June 30 after having served in the post since December 2006.

Before becoming secretary, he was a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group assessing the Iraq war. His background includes 27 years working in the intelligence community, including serving as CIA director from 1991-93. He also was president of Texas A&M University and an officer in the Air Force.

If the Senate confirms him, CIA Director Leon Panetta will replace Gates. Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of American and allied forces in Afghanistan, is expected to fill Panetta’s post.

Mullen also is leaving his post on Oct. 1, and President Obama has selected Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey as his replacement.

We asked several military analysts to grade Gates, A through F, on different aspects of role as secretary. Here’s what they said:

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OVERALL:

Grade: A-

He’s been an outstanding “secretary of war” in regard to Iraq and Afghanistan, and been a forceful “secretary of defense” in regard to managing the Pentagon as an institution. The only question is whether he might have done better to protect defense budgets as a whole even while properly attempting to reorient how the department spends its money.

MANAGING WAR IN AFGHANISTAN:

Grade: A+

He’s accomplished all that reasonably could be asked, and deserves immense credit for creating the political conditions in Washington that have allowed for success in the field and for ensuring that the generals in charge had the correct concept. Despite their campaign commitment to Afghanistan as “the good war,” the Obama White House did not understand the scale of the effort that would be necessary to regain the operational initiative from the Taliban.

The administration’s initial Afghanistan reviews were contentious and drawn out, and Secretary Gates played an important role in ensuring that Generals McChrystal and then Petraeus had sufficient political top-cover and troops to have a reasonable chance to achieve their goals.

He also was willing to push aside General McKiernan when he began to have doubts about his leadership. Gates also played a significant role in assuring a reluctant Congress — both Democrats and, more lately, Republicans — that the effort was worth it. And, as he departs, he’s been forceful in arguing the case for a continued effort.

MANAGING IRAQ WAR:

Grade: A+

As with Afghanistan, Gates was instrumental in creating the conditions so that the “surge” could have an effect. If anything, the Iraq case revealed a surprising inner strength to Gates — he’s long been a prominent member of the Washington establishment, whose conventional wisdom — as reflected in the Baker-Hamilton [Iraq Study Group] report, to which Gates himself contributed — was that Iraq was lost and the surge could not achieve any lasting success. And again, his role and reputation did a lot to keep the Democratic Congress from pulling the plug at a time when Bush administration credibility was very low.

And also as with Afghanistan, Gates has been forward in arguing the case for ongoing American strategic interests in Iraq and a continued U.S. military presence and engagement beyond the withdrawal deadline in the status of forces agreement.

RUNNING DEFENSE DEPARTMENT:

Grade: B+

On accountability, he gets an A plus: He’s removed generals and service secretaries when they have mismanaged programs and been unresponsive to political or battlefield conditions; quite quietly, he’s reasserted civilian control and at the same time earned greater respect from people in uniform — a very neat trick, though one which reflects a seasoned understanding of the true military ethos; people in uniform respect leadership and can easily sense a pandering attitude. His crusade for budget “efficiencies” — even when they merely involved moving money from one expenditure to another — was a courageous and overdue effort and a politically savvy attempt to preserve the Pentagon’s purchasing power as the likelihood of budget cuts increased.

That said, the scope of program cuts and terminations and projected troop reductions during his watch is huge — something above $350 billion worth of procurement and significant strength cuts for the Army and Marine Corps despite the uncertainty of conditions in Iraq, Afghanistan or indeed across the Middle East. And, of course, there looms the prospect of at least another $400 billion — it may well be more — in reductions ahead. Gates’ loose talk about the “gusher of money” coming into the Pentagon has gone a long way to reinforce the popular belief in “waste, fraud and abuse” and exacerbated the political appetite for cuts far in excess of savings to be reaped from any reform efforts.

At this point, it is all but inevitable that the future U.S. military will be smaller and less capable than it is, than it was a decade ago, even as the post-Cold War quiet ends. That’s not Gates’ fault; the question is whether he might have done more to avert the probability of the train wreck to come.

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Richard Kohn

OVERALL:

Grade: A-

He succeeded in serving two very different presidents in difficult times, apparently satisfactorily. He seems to have gained their confidence and respect, and that of the Congress, the defense community, and the public. The reporting suggests that his advice has been sound and sensible. He refocused the military on the needs of the troops in two debilitating wars. He cancelled some questionable weapons projects, argued for a greater responsibility and resources for the civilian agencies of government in foreign policy, and managed the military establishment with care in an organized, relatively efficient manner.

Most importantly, he implemented civilian control in a quiet but forceful manner, imposing some discipline on the services and the senior uniformed leadership and to abide by policy decisions and mostly abstain from pursuing their personal or institutional interests when those were detrimental to his or the administration’s desires. And he was explicit in publicly advocating sound professional values for the uniformed military, both in speaking candidly to superiors and forsaking political partisanship.

His choices for the senior military leadership have been mostly outstanding. His most important failing was not to use his credibility and influence to set in motion a rethinking of the fundamental character of the defense establishment — to move away from Cold War assumptions, organization, and policies and begin to reshape the armed forces for 21st century needs and challenges.

MANAGING WAR IN AFGHANISTAN:

Grade: D

He apparently went along with a hasty, superficial, and apparently inadequate strategic review in the spring of 2009, having focused almost all his attention on Iraq in the two years prior during the Bush administration to the neglect of the Afghanistan war. He chose two commanders who had to be relieved, both understandable choices at the time but both unfortunate. He failed to silence senior military leaders in the late summer and into the fall of 2009 in time enough to prevent a loss of trust in the military leadership at the White House, and apparently did not provide the president with usable strategic alternatives so that the White House itself could avoid having to think through the war for itself.

In effect, he did not provide the country with a solution to the war that would harmonize ends and means with congressional and public patience, with the monetary and military resources, and the larger requirements of national security. Certainly he supported the troops in this war — and the one in Iraq — but his responsibilities in policy and strategy were equally and perhaps more important.

MANAGING IRAQ WAR:

Grade: A

He supported the president’s decision for a “surge” even though he may have harbored personal doubts; he supported his commander and did not get between him and the president, and he fired a combatant commander who did interfere with the commander on the ground; he led a reluctant president to a Status of Forces Agreement with a weak Iraqi government that achieved the goal of American disengagement from a war that has been diverting American resources and undermining the larger American effort in the campaign against the radical Islamist groups that threaten the United States. And he has held to American disengagement even though the outcome of the war remains in doubt.

RUNNING DEFENSE DEPARTMENT:

While we won’t know more than a fraction of what Mr. Gates attempted and accomplished for many more years, his *temporary grade in this regard is B+.

On the budget, he imposed some cuts that while marginal in the larger scheme of things, are important — probably as much as he could get away with during two wars and the reluctance of Congress and two administrations to reconsider some fundamental choices in national security.

Unlike his predecessors, was willing to fire senior leaders, military and civilian, for malfeasance or lack of performance deficiency of various kinds. However he failed to reform the way in which his department keeps track of and spends money, did not undertake a very necessary review of the officer personnel system in its entirety, and did little to re-vector the military establishment to address some broader challenges in national security that are emerging today.

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Retired Col. Douglas Macgregor

Retired Col. Macgregor is the author of two books on reforming the Army.

OVERALL:

Grade: F

When Secretary Gates came to office, he was uniquely positioned to terminate the fiscally unsustainable Bush-era idea that Islamist terrorism is a problem to be dealt with through invasion and occupation of Muslim countries. Instead, he reinforced this self-defeating approach in Iraq and Afghanistan centered more on money and military muscle than long-term strategy.

He routinely failed to assist the president with the development of a comprehensive national strategy to direct America’s use of force; particularly given the absence of an existential military threat to the United States or its allies.

Finally, Mr. Gates leaves office with a defense budget Americans cannot afford, a Defense Department that cannot pass an audit and a military establishment in a very confused and decayed condition.

MANAGING WAR IN AFGHANISTAN:

Grade: F

The counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan was always irrelevant to the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, which was and is located in Pakistan. None of the plots in the West were or are connected to any Afghan insurgent group, labeled under the umbrella name “Afghan Taliban.” Just as it did not work in Viet Nam or Algeria, the “new” COIN strategy of “clear, hold, build” cannot be executed on behalf of another government — particularly a weak and corrupt government like Kabul — by a foreign army.

“Sanctuary denial” to keep AQ out of Afghanistan was always the right mission inside Afghanistan for small numbers of U.S. and allied forces, not COIN. Thanks to Secretary Gates’ demand for the wrong solution to the wrong problem, the widespread use of air strikes and special operations raids that radicalize greater and greater numbers of Muslims, Pakistan is more radicalized than ever and Afghanistan is a deeply divided, failed Narco-State flush with cash from the opium trade and U.S. taxpayer dollars.

MANAGING IRAQ WAR:

Grade: F

Eight years, 35,000 American casualties and a trillion dollars later, Iraq is being rebuilt along very familiar lines: concentration of power, shadowy intelligence services and corruption making America’s largest military intervention since the Vietnam War a strategic disaster for the United States, its friends and allies in the Middle East.

Contrary to the “success” claimed for the “surge” in Iraq, instead of establishing a U.S.-friendly Iraqi government in Baghdad, the surge permanently replaced Iraq’s secular, power-hungry Sunni Muslim Arab rulers with Iranian-backed Shi’ite Arab Islamists. With the lion’s share of Iraq’s Southern oil fields in Chinese hands and the Kurdish nationalists determined to control Iraq’s northern oil reserves more fighting is inevitable, even Turkish military intervention. In sum, though Gates did not initiate the intervention in Iraq, he reinforced the strategic error instead of correcting it.

For advocating the sacrifice of more than a thousand American lives in 2007 when it was both ill-advised and unnecessary to do so, he gets an F. For stating the truth when it was too late and too obvious to conceal — that the United States should avoid repeating the folly of Iraq — he gets a D minus.

RUNNING DEFENSE DEPARTMENT:

Grade: D

Mr. Gates’ gets a D for rhetoric without execution. His proposed reductions in defense spending constitute a very small drop in a very large bucket at a point in time when there is no existential threat to the United States and we are spending huge sums on materiel that will be of little or no use to the American Armed Forces in future crises and conflicts.

Contrary to Secretary Gates’ claims to have terminated more than 30 defense programs and “saving” the tax payer $300 billion, in reality the number of programs increased under his tenure costing an additional $72+ billion. Mr. Gates sacked the top civilian and uniformed leaders of the Air Force for their failure to address significant C3 and security procedural flaws in the Air Force nuclear deterrent, but he did nothing to promote greater attention to or investment in modern, relevant nuclear deterrence prior to the forced double-resignation. His efforts in this area are still inadequate. His support for optimizing U.S. ground forces to conduct more unwanted occupations is: (1) Unaffordable; and, (2) Strategically self-defeating.

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Dov Zakheim

Zakheim is a former Pentagon comptroller.

OVERALL:

Grade: A

Decisive. A good leader in policy terms and an effective manager

Managed the Bush to Obama transition and won the confidence of both presidents

Team player: worked better with the State Department than any of his predecessors

Was correct in pressing for the Iraq surge and the surge in Afghanistan

While his senior subordinates were comfortable working with him — he did not intimidate, he did not hesitate to fire top military and civilian appointees when it was warranted, e.g. the Walter Reed case.

Won the respect of both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill

Had the right instincts on Libya — preventing the U.S. from getting fully enmeshed in yet another war with Arabs

Unafraid to kill major programs — F-22, Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle

MANAGING WAR IN AFGHANISTAN:

Grade: A

Managed the war under very difficult circumstances

Support for surge, which enabled the Taliban to be driven back, and has facilitated a rapid withdrawal — even if he personally does not like the idea.

Jawboned more NATO support for ISAF even if, as he says now, it remains insufficient

MANAGING IRAQ WAR:

Grade: A

Supported Petraeus, Odierno (Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq) and their team on the surge, which was a significant factor in turning around the war

RUNNING DEFENSE DEPARTMENT:

Grade: A

Along with what I wrote above, he probably forestalled worse budget cuts by seeking to transfer $100 billion from less important/less efficient programs to higher priority ones, and by finding $87 billion in cuts for FY ’12-’16.

Continued and expanded (former Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld’s focus on UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and other systems needed for flexible warfare against unconventional threats

Pushed through the MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected vehicles) program in almost record time

Probably overemphasized acquisition focus on systems mostly suited for warfare against unconventional threats. He did not succeed in reforming the acquisition system or in preventing larger budget cuts.

Additional reporting by Daniel Sagalyn. View all of our Military reports and follow us on Twitter.