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Gates open to sending more troops to Afghanistan

The Defense chief signals strong support for the administration's war strategy. Gen. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has called for an increase in size of the U.S. force.

September 04, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — In the face of declining public support for the military campaign in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Thursday offered strong backing for the war effort and said he was open to a further increase in the size of the U.S. force.

Gates' willingness to consider additional troops represented a shift that is likely to boost Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, who is seeking administration approval for more reinforcements.

And because Gates is a holdover from the George W. Bush administration with an image of nonpartisanship, his endorsement of the Obama administration's approach comes with a high degree of credibility.

Gates oversaw the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq and the successful overhaul of the war strategy there during the Bush years. But the Defense secretary has been skeptical of expanding the U.S. force in Afghanistan, warning that a large military "footprint" would be viewed negatively by Afghans.

McChrystal, in a formal assessment this week, wrote that perceptions of Afghans were affected more by the conduct of the force than its size, an argument Gates found persuasive.

"I'm very open to the recommendations and certainly the perspective of Gen. McChrystal," Gates said at a news conference Thursday.

Gates' comments come as public opinion polls consistently show a majority of Americans now oppose the Afghanistan campaign. Gates said he understood that people were weary of the conflict after nearly eight years, but challenged the notion that the administration is at risk of losing the war or public support for it.

"I don't believe that the war is slipping through the administration's fingers," Gates said. "The nation has been at war for eight years. The fact that Americans would be tired of having their sons and daughters at risk and in battle is not surprising."

Appearing at the news conference with Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gates acknowledged that the war was not going well but said that the new strategy and new commander -- McChrystal -- could turn it around.

"We think that we now have the resources and the right approach to begin making some headway and turning around a situation that, as many have indicated, has been deteriorating," Gates said.

Gates and Mullen agreed that they have limited time to prove that the administration's new approach to the war is working.

"There is a sense of urgency," Mullen said. "Time is not on our side."

In July, Gates said U.S.-led forces must show progress by next summer to avoid the public perception that the conflict has become unwinnable.

It is not clear how many additional troops McChrystal will seek, and Gates did not offer a range. One senior Defense official said McChrystal is believed to favor boosting the overall force to about 80,000. President Obama previously approved an increase to 68,000 troops by year's end.

There also are about 38,000 NATO troops from other nations in Afghanistan.

In his clearest explanation yet of his views about extra troops, Gates said his earlier concern about the size of the force could be "mitigated" by changes in how troops are used and how they act.

Other foreign armies failed in Afghanistan after its citizens "concluded they were there for their own imperial interests and not there for the interests of the Afghan people," he said.

Gates asked McChrystal to specifically address in his assessment the repercussions of a large military presence. In response, McChrystal detailed changes he is ordering to the way soldiers travel about the country and how they interact with the Afghan public. He also outlined steps to reduce civilian casualties.

Such changes should help ensure that Afghans view international forces as allies, and will allow the U.S. to put more forces in the country, Gates said he had concluded.

"The approach that Gen. McChrystal has taken in terms of civilian casualties and in terms of the way our troops interact with the Afghans has given us a greater margin of error," Gates said.

McChrystal, who assumed command of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in June, is widely expected to submit a request for more troops in coming weeks or months. Once he does, Gates said, Pentagon and administration officials at each level would review and discuss the request, which then could change.

"A lot happens in this dialogue up and down the chain of command," Gates said.

He recalled that in Iraq, similar discussions resulted in a faster timeline for the U.S. withdrawal, which was moved up by four months as a result.

Aides to McChrystal believe that new strategies he is developing will shore up support for the war effort, if the new commander is given a chance to explain them.

Military officials in Afghanistan had hoped to release an unclassified version of the assessment, but the Pentagon and White House have decided to keep McChrystal's assessment secret for now.

The Joint Chiefs met this week with McChrystal and his superior, Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, to discuss the assessment, Mullen said. Gates, Mullen and Petraeus will provide the White House with a written evaluation of it.

Military officials in Afghanistan are acutely aware of the politics of requesting more troops so soon after Obama approved a significant increase and at a time when public and political support is eroding on both the left and right.

A few Democrats and even some conservatives, including columnist and commentator George Will, have called for the U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan, a course Gates rejected.

"I absolutely do not think it is time to get out of Afghanistan," Gates said.

He said the situation in the country would rapidly deteriorate further if U.S. troops "just walk away."

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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