US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates blamed the Taliban’s revival on a past failure to deploy enough troops to Afghanistan and said US forces would not withdraw, whatever the result of US President Barack Obama’s strategy review.
“We are not leaving Afghanistan. This discussion is about next steps forward and the president has some momentous decisions to make,” Gates said in a TV program taped at George Washington University on Monday and being aired by CNN yesterday.
Obama faces pivotal decisions after the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, presented a grim assessment of the eight-year war.
Eight US soldiers were killed on Saturday when tribal militia stormed two combat outposts in eastern Afghanistan, the worst US loss in more than a year.
The administration is debating whether to send up to 40,000 more troops, or scale back the mission and focus on striking al-Qaeda cells, an idea backed by US Vice President Joe Biden.
Gates said that US and allied failure to put more troops into Afghanistan in the past, when then US president George W. Bush shifted resources to invade Iraq, gave the Taliban an edge.
“Because of our inability, and the inability, frankly, of our allies, [to put] enough troops into Afghanistan, the Taliban do have the momentum right now, it seems,” Gates said.
Complicating the White House discussions are allegations of vote fraud in Afghanistan’s August presidential election, mostly aimed at incumbent and provisional winner Hamid Karzai.
Some say if Karzai were declared victor despite the charges it would undermine his government’s legitimacy. US officials have cited the fraud allegations as a reason for the policy review.
In his CNN remarks, Gates said the US could not afford to give al-Qaeda and the Taliban the propaganda victory of a US retreat in Afghanistan, where mujahideen forced the Soviet Union to withdraw after a decade of bloody warfare.
“That country, and particularly the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, is the modern epicenter of jihad,” he said.
“And their view is ... they now have the opportunity to defeat a second superpower, which more than anything would empower their message and the opportunity to recruit and fund raise and plan operations,” he said.
“What’s more important than that in my view is the message that it sends that empowers al Qaeda,” Gates said. “The notion that they have come back from this defeat, come back from 2002, to challenge not only the United States but NATO, 42 nations, is a hugely empowering message should they be successful.”
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