US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Tuesday “we are lost” unless the US could find a way not to kill so many civilians in the pursuit of militants in Afghanistan, and flooding the chaotic country with US troops would lead to disaster.
Gates, the only Republican Cabinet member whom US President Barack Obama asked to stay on, told a Senate panel that the Pentagon could send two more brigades to Afghanistan within weeks and a third brigade in eight months to try to salvage a war that has ground to a grim standoff with entrenched and resourceful militants.
The US is considering doubling its troop presence in Afghanistan this year to roughly 60,000, still fewer than half the number still in Iraq and a modest commitment when compared with the “surge” of US forces and resources credited with turning around a flagging fight in Iraq.
Gates said he is deeply skeptical about adding any more US forces beyond the three brigades, in part because military dominion in Afghanistan has failed for every great power that tried it.
“The civilian casualties are doing us an enormous harm in Afghanistan, and we have got to do better” to avoid innocent deaths, even though Taliban militants use civilians as cover, Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “My worry is that the Afghans come to see us as part of the problem, rather than as part of their solution. And then we are lost.”
Bracing and blunt, Gates outlined an agenda for Afghanistan that is closely focused on US strategic needs in a battle against terror and extremism and that trims the democratic ambitions espoused by the administration of former US president George W. Bush.
“We need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan,” Gates said.
The US should keep its sights on one thing: preventing Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists who would harm the US or its allies, Gates said.
“Afghanistan is the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Gates said, referring to a haven of purity in Norse mythology. “Nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience or money, to be honest.”
Gates joined US fortunes in Afghanistan to the related struggle against extremism in Pakistan, but signaled no reduction in US missile strikes or other raids that infuriate both peoples and besmirch the US-backed governments in Kabul and Islamabad.