Official Discomfort with Afghanistan War?

By: John Isaacs

While key Administration officials continue to vigorously support the war in Afghanistan, there appears to be a less-than-enthusiastic larger view about the war.

Take Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In his recent speech at West Point, he pointed out:

“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

That does not sound like a high level official who thinks that the United States military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq were bang up good ideas. Gates is not advocating getting out; he just does not think getting in was smart.

This skepticism was amplified at a February 17, 2011 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. There, Admiral Michael Mullen (USN), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not make the situation in Afghanistan sound exactly rosy.

Mullen thinks that the military situation in Afghanistan is going well: “On the military side, Senator McCain, I’m probably — I’m more optimistic than I’ve been.” [unofficial transcript]

The other aspects of the war are not so hot.

“But on the political side, the economic side, I — it’s — at least from my perspective, it looks worse than it has in a long time. So I share your concern. I share — I — the vector is going in the wrong direction overall for the country. We’re very unpopular there. You’ve seen that. It gets highlighted in each crisis, whether — I mean, we provided extraordinary support for the floods last year — we the military. And then that registers in a — in a popular way shortly. You have an incident like the one we’re going through right now, and our popularity is back down in very small numbers.”

Mullen wants to continue prosecuting the war. Neither he nor Gates has joined the “out now” caucus. But for Mullen, two out of three basic indicators of the war – economic and political progress – are in the toilet.

Gates did endorse the withdrawal dates put forward by the Obama Administration in the same hearing:

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI):Secretary, you indicated that we are on track to end the presence of our combat troops in Iraq by the end of this year, as decided upon by President Bush. Do you continue to support that decision?

Sec. Gates: Yes, I do.

Levin: And are you planning to begin reductions of our troops in Afghanistan by July of this year, as ordered by President Obama, with the pace to be determined — of the reductions determined by conditions on the ground? And do you support that decision?

Gates: Yes, sir.

Levin: And can you tell us why?

Gates: Well, frankly, this was the most difficult part of the Afghan strategy going forward for me to come to support. I steadfastly — as some on this committee will remember — steadfastly opposed any deadlines in Iraq, and so came to this with a certain skepticism.

But I also realized that there is a difference between Iraq and Afghanistan in this respect. The truth of the matter is, the Iraqis want us out of the country as quickly as possible. On the other hand, the Afghans — at least, a certain number of them — would like us to stay forever. They live in a very dangerous neighborhood, and having U.S. forces there to support them and help them, often in the place of their own troops, is something that they would like to see. And so it seemed to me that we needed to do something that would grab the attention of the Afghan leadership and bring a sense of urgency to them of the need for them to step up to the plate to take ownership of the war and to recruit their own young men to fight.