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Afghan war is now top priority, Defense Secretary Gates says

Gates tells the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. will increase the number of troops in Afghanistan dramatically this spring.

January 28, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — As President Obama prepared to meet today with top military officials to review the troubled U.S. effort in Afghanistan, his Defense secretary told lawmakers Tuesday that the U.S. should set realistic, achievable goals.

The recommendation by Robert M. Gates, who also served under President Bush, represents a notable departure from the position of the Bush administration, which long emphasized the importance of establishing a strong, democratic government in Afghanistan.

But in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said the U.S. risked failure if it did not set more limited objectives. Rather than the pursuit of democracy, Gates said the primary mission should be ensuring that Afghanistan did not again become a haven for Al Qaeda.

"My own personal view is that our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists," Gates said.

The Obama administration is working with military leaders to craft a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, which Gates said has become America's "top overseas military priority." Attacks by the Taliban and other extremists have risen in the last two years, setting back U.S. and allied efforts to stabilize the country.

The president planned to meet at the Pentagon with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the uniformed heads of the armed services.

"The risk of where we are in Afghanistan right now, in terms of outcomes, is pretty high right now, because it's not going well," Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen said Tuesday in a briefing at the State Department's Foreign Press Center. "And it hasn't been going well for a significant period of time."

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have been seeking more troops for months, but because of strains on the military, they must wait until units are withdrawn from Iraq.

One new unit, the Ft. Drum, N.Y.-based 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, has arrived in Afghanistan, bringing the number of U.S. troops to 36,000.

By spring, two additional brigades will be sent to Afghanistan, to be joined by a third in midsummer, Gates said.

He said it would be difficult to send troops to Afghanistan much faster because of a lack of infrastructure -- dining halls, bases, hospitals and logistics hubs.

Gates said U.S. and allied troops must try harder to avoid killing civilians.

"My worry is that the Afghans come to see us as part of their problem rather than part of their solution, and then we are lost," he said.

Meanwhile, Republicans in both the Senate and House, where Gates testified in the afternoon, criticized the administration for ordering the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without a specific plan for what to do with the 245 prisoners.

Gates defended the yearlong time frame set by Obama, calling the announcement an "important strategic communications victory."

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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