WASHINGTON — Amid calls for the Obama administration to make more changes to its strategy and leadership in Afghanistan, top U.S. officials said Thursday that while their strategy may be troubled, they think it's salvageable.
President Barack Obama; Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. Central Command leader and Obama's nominee to lead the war after Gen. Stanley McChrystal's sacking; and Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry all stressed that policy in Afghanistan remains unchanged.
They shot down suggestions that Obama replace Eikenberry, despite long-standing friction between the top State and Defense Department officials in Kabul. They conceded that the war has proved more difficult than they expected but said it's still winnable, and they stood behind the administration's July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
"I do not believe we are bogged down. I believe we are making some progress. It is slower and harder than we anticipated," Gates said at the Pentagon.
The officials pleaded for more time to determine whether the strategy is succeeding. Mullen said the military would have a better understanding of that at the end of the year.
"We didn't say we'd be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us. We said that we'd begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking on more and more responsibility," Obama said of the deadline during a news conference with visiting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose nation is still scarred by a decade-long war in Afghanistan that ended 21 years ago.
Medvedev was asked whether, given Russia's experience in Afghanistan, he thought any foreign country could "win" there and whether he'd shared any advice with Obama.
Medvedev's awkward answer, through a translator, was that "I try not to give pieces of advice that cannot be fulfilled."
Afghanistan, he said, is a "hard topic." Russia supports the U.S. effort to help the Afghan people have a functioning state and economy and civil society, he said. He also said that that required "more than a year" of toil, though it was unclear whether he meant that longer military engagement also would be needed.
U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been hampered by, among other things, the absence of a political strategy, rising U.S. casualties, growing ethnic tensions, endemic political corruption, the administration's July 2011 deadline for beginning a troop withdrawal and a stalled offensive in Kandahar, the country's second-largest city and the spiritual home of the Taliban.
June is already one of the deadliest months of the war; so far, at least 43 U.S. troops have been killed.
Gates said that in his meeting Wednesday with McChrystal, the general made no effort to explain his comments in the Rolling Stone article that led to his dismissal, but simply acknowledged that he'd exercised poor judgment.
He said that Obama was the first to suggest that Petraeus replace McChrystal and that he did so before McChrystal returned to Washington.
Gates' chief concern had been that "however we proceed that we minimize the impact of any change on the conduct of the war," he said. The naming of Petraeus "answered a lot of concerns that I had."
Gates said that there'd been no previous expression of dissatisfaction with the way McChrystal had conducted the war and that if the Rolling Stone article hadn't appeared, McChrystal would still be in charge of the war. He called the dismissal "an anomaly, not systematic."
Gates also offered support for Eikenberry, a retired three-star Army general who opposed Obama's plan to deploy additional troops in Afghanistan, saying that Afghan President Hamid Karzai wasn't a reliable partner. Gates dismissed Pentagon complaints about Eikenberry's position by noting that "a lot of water has gone under the bridge" since that U.S. policy was set seven months ago.
In Kabul on Thursday, Eikenberry voiced similar sentiments about the reported differences between civilian and military officials.
"What is past is past now," he said. "The president made a very difficult decision. I will tell you that Stan McChrystal will always remain my friend. He's an extremely good officer. But now here, with regards to this mission, as our president said, it's time to move forward."
Mullen said he felt partly responsible for the way that McChrystal's tenure ended, noting that he'd strongly recommended McChrystal for the post. He said he was shocked when he first read the Rolling Stone piece in which McChrystal and his staff made derogatory comments about U.S. civilian leaders. He described himself as "nearly sick ... literally physically. ... I was stunned."
The piece created a "command climate ... that at best was disrespectful," Mullen said. "General McChrystal did the right thing by offering to resign."
(Margaret Talev contributed to this report.)
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