During a press briefing at the Pentagon, Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the military’s effort to push back insurgent and terrorist forces in Afghanistan amid rising public opposition to the war.
Gates and the Joint Chiefs are reviewing a recent report by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, that recommends revising how the U.S. implements its war-fighting strategies in Afghanistan. The report has not been made public, but it will be forwarded to President Barack Obama, along with recommendations from Gates and Mullen, next week.
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“Time is not on our side,” Mullen acknowledged, saying that McChrystal’s new approach to Obama’s Afghan strategy can make a difference.
Whether it makes a difference on the home front is another matter. A CNN poll released this week showed 57 percent of Americans now oppose the war. And the drop-off in support has begun to pull in more than anti-war liberals. This week, conservative columnist George Will called for pulling troops out of Afghanistan and relying more on airstrikes and drones; Gates skewered the suggestion.
“I have a lot of respect for Mr. Will, but in this case, I do disagree with him,” the defense secretary said. “The notion that you can conduct a purely counterterrorist kind of campaign, and do it from a distance, simply does not accord with reality.”
As for adding troops to the fight, Gates said he would not speculate about what “resources” McChrystal would request. The general’s new plan reportedly does not seek additional troops but is widely seen as a prelude to such a request.
“I would just point out that the number of us troops in Afghanistan has nearly doubled in the course of the last year,” Gates said. About 68,000 U.S. troops are expected to be in Afghanistan by December. Any request for additional troops, he said, needs to be weighed against the impact on the force and the military’s other responsibilities around the globe.
Asked about declining poll numbers, Gates urged the public to keep the history of the war in mind – that the U.S. entered Afghanistan because the Taliban were providing a base of operations for Al Qaeda.
"It seems to me that we’re in Afghanistan less for nation building than we are for giving Afghanistan he capacity to oppose Al Qaeda, to oppose the use of their territory by other violent extremists,” he said.