WASHINGTON — Top Pentagon leaders Thursday insisted that despite an expected request for more American troops in Afghanistan, the U.S. isn't engaged in nation building there and that although violence is increasing, the military effort there is "only now beginning."
In a news conference Thursday at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded to mounting criticism that the Obama administration can't define success in Afghanistan.
Critics charge that the administration's effort to build a stable and secure nation are unachievable because of rampant corruption in the Afghan central government, a disjointed coalition force structure, a resurgent Taliban and the absence of cooperation from neighboring Pakistan.
Gates, in response to a question, said the war is "not slipping through the administration's fingers."
Instead, the secretary, who earlier this year fired Army Gen. David McKiernan, the Afghanistan commander, and replaced him with Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said he thinks that the U.S. policy in Afghanistan is clear and on the right track.
Gates said he'd read McChrystal's 60-day assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and plans to "informally forward" his recommendations to President Barack Obama next week. McChrystal is expected to ask for as many as 45,000 more troops in a separate report later this month.
Earlier this year, the administration agreed to send another 17,500 troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan; so far all but 8,000 have arrived. There currently are 62,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Gates and Mullen acknowledged, however, that public support for the war is waning. With four months to go, 2009 already is the deadliest year of the war. At least 308 U.S. and Nato troops have been killed this year, and a McClatchy/Ipsos poll released this week found that 54 percent of Americans don't think the U.S. military is winning in Afghanistan.
Gates and Mullen Thursday pleaded for more time.
"The fact that Americans would be tired of having their sons and daughters at risk and in battle is not surprising," Gates said. "I think what is important is for us to be able to show, over the months to come, that the president's strategy is succeeding. We understand the concerns on the part of many Americans in this area, and — but we think that we now have the resources and the right approach to begin making some headway in turning around a situation that, as many have indicated, has been deteriorating."
Mullen and Gates responded to critics who fear that the war in Afghanistan is becoming a quagmire and that the U.S. military shouldn't engage in nation building, particularly in a country with such weak infrastructure and no history of a viable central government.
In addition, Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election, which the administration initially hailed as a success, appears to be headed toward a run-off. U.S. commanders in Kabul fear that widespread charges of fraud and vote rigging and uncertainty about who'll be the next president could lead to more violence.
Although no one had compared Afghanistan to Vietnam, Mullen reminded reporters that, "I am a Vietnam veteran" and said, "We have a mission that we're doing the best we possibly can to carry out."
In an apparent attempt to argue that America's security is at stake in Afghanistan, Gates said that before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Taliban not only provided al Qaida refuge, but also "cooperated and collaborated" with the terrorist group. Because of that, he said, the U.S. must ensure that a stable government exists in Afghanistan so the Taliban — and ultimately al Qaida — can't return.
Although no one asked Gates whether the U.S. was engaged in nation building in Afghanistan, he said that the U.S. effort to train Afghan security forces and support local governance isn't that.
"It seems to me that we're in Afghanistan less for nation building than we are for giving Afghanistan the capacity to oppose al Qaida; to oppose the use of their territory by other violent extremists," Gates said.
On Thursday, Gates finessed his position on whether the U.S. footprint could become too large. Until now, he's fretted about sending more than 100,000 troops to Afghanistan — roughly the number the Soviet Union had during its war in Afghanistan — out of fear that the U.S. and its allies would appear to be another occupying force.
According to Pentagon figures, there currently are 101,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, Gates said the number isn't as important as how the troops conduct themselves.
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