Afghanistan war worth fighting, Gates says

Urges patience as polls hint support falling Could increase troop numbers

By Lara Jakes
Associated Press / September 4, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Faced with waning public support for the military escalation in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that the war is worth fighting and signaled for the first time he may be willing to send more troops, after months of publicly resisting a significant increase.

Gates urged patience amid polls indicating rising disenchantment among the public with the war effort, saying the American military presence in Afghanistan was necessary to derail terrorists.

At a Pentagon news conference, Gates said efforts by President Obama - including ordering an additional 21,000 US troops to Afghanistan this spring - are “only now beginning’’ and should be given a chance to succeed. “I don’t believe that the war is slipping through the administration’s fingers,’’ Gates said. Later, he added: “I absolutely do not think it is time to get out of Afghanistan.’’

Meanwhile, an aide to Britain’s defense minister resigned, criticizing the government’s handling of the conflict in Afghanistan and calling on Britain to scale back its commitment there.

The resignation is particularly embarrassing because Eric Joyce, a former army major, is one of the few top-ranking members of the governing Labour Party with any military experience.

In a speech, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that Britain’s military will stay in Afghanistan until the nation can look after its own security, dismissing Joyce’s call for withdrawal.

Gates and the Joint Chiefs chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen, declined to talk about any of the recommendations contained in a new review of Afghanistan strategy sent this week to them and the president. Gates said only that he could consider a major increase in combat troops under certain conditions.

Gates said he would be comfortable with a larger US military presence in Afghanistan as long as the increase reassured the country’s citizens that the Americans were there for the benefit of Afghans.

“If they interact with the Afghans in a way that gives confidence to the Afghans that we’re their partners and their allies, then the risks that I have been concerned about the footprint becoming too big and the Afghans seeing us in some role other than partners I think is mitigated,’’ Gates said.

A separate recommendation on troop increases is expected in the coming weeks from the top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who wrote the new review, but how many troops McChrystal wants is unclear. There could be as many as 20,000, but in recent days military officials have predicted it will be far less, closer to or fewer than 10,000.

Mullen said the question of a new jump in troop deployments is just one element of a larger plan that the Pentagon will soon ask Congress to authorize. “It’s a piece - critical, but it’s not total,’’ Mullen said.

Despite recent calls from leftist activists and also from conservative columnist George Will to wind down US military involvement in Afghanistan, Gates forcefully argued for continued American efforts there.

Fifty-one US troops died in Afghanistan in August, making it the bloodiest month for American forces there since the US-led invasion in late 2001.

Gates cited the continuing threat from Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies as the top reason why the US should stay in Afghanistan. Leaving would allow terrorists to reestablish staging bases in a nation where the political leadership is unable to curb insurgent threats, Gates said in a blunt reference to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“We’re in Afghanistan less for nation-building than we are in giving the Afghan state the capacity to oppose Al Qaeda, to oppose the use of their territory by other violent extremists, and for them to have that capacity that can be sustained over a period of time,’’ the secretary said.

By the end of the year, an estimated 68,000 troops will be in Afghanistan, 21,000 of which were ordered there by Obama last spring. Military commanders and State Department officials on the ground, however, say many more are needed to get the job done. Mullen described “a sense of urgency’’ in securing Afghanistan to make sure extremists can no longer hatch terrorist plots against the United States and it allies from within its borders.