Gates warns Afghanistan critics

Defense secretary won’t set timeline for withdrawal

Ismail Khan, Afghanistan’s energy minister, threatened to quit after surviving a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul yesterday. Ismail Khan, Afghanistan’s energy minister, threatened to quit after surviving a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul yesterday. (Musadeq Sadeq/ Associated Press)
By Jim Kuhnhenn
Associated Press / September 28, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is pushing back against liberal calls for withdrawal timetables from Afghanistan, saying it is a mistake to set a deadline to end US military action and a defeat would be disastrous for the United States.

In a stern warning to critics of a continued troop presence in Afghanistan, Gates said the Islamic extremist Taliban and Al Qaeda would perceive an early pullout as a victory over the United States similar to the Soviet Union’s humiliating withdrawal in 1989 after a 10-year war.

“The notion of timelines and exit strategies and so on, frankly, I think would all be a strategic mistake. The reality is, failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States,’’ Gates said in an interview broadcast yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union.’’

“Taliban and Al Qaeda, as far as they’re concerned, defeated one superpower. For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think, would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, Al Qaeda recruitment, operations, fund-raising, and so on. I think it would be a huge setback for the United States.’’

Gates’s made his remarks as President Obama reexamines his administration’s strategy in Afghanistan and as the Pentagon sits on a request for additional troops from General Stanley McChrystal, the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested Obama’s decisions will be made after the election in Afghanistan is sorted out.

“This is not like an election in Western Europe or the United States; to carry out an election in these circumstances was going to be difficult under any conditions. It’s not over yet,’’ Clinton told CBS’s “Face the Nation.’’

A powerful member of President Hamid Karzai’s Cabinet threatened to quit after a suicide car bomb attack targeted him yesterday, killing five people, in the latest Taliban attempt to destabilize Afghanistan’s struggling government. Two Americans were among six NATO troop deaths elsewhere.

Shortly after the bombing in the western city of Herat, Energy Minister Ismail Khan railed against the dramatic rise in violence in Afghanistan, saying thousands of new refugees are seeking shelter in Herat because of militant attacks in outlying districts. Five civilians died in the failed assassination attempt, police said.

Gates said Obama has made no decision on whether to send additional troops. If Obama were to choose to increase combat forces, he said, they would not be able to mobilize until January.

The prospect of sending additional soldiers has created a backlash among some Democrats in Congress and has angered antiwar activists on the left who rallied behind Obama’s presidential candidacy last year.

Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has said the administration should set a “flexible timeline’’ to draw down troops. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called for a timeline and a time limit for achieving objectives in Afghanistan.

“I do not believe the American people want to be in Afghanistan for the next 10 years, effectively nation-building,’’ she told “Fox News Sunday.’’

Other Democrats in the Senate, such as the Armed Services Committee chairman, Carl Levin of Michigan, have not gone as far, but have urged Obama not to escalate the war.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said he hopes Obama will decide to commit the necessary troops.

“I think you will see signs of success in a year to 18 months if we implement the strategy right away,’’ McCain said on ABC’s “This Week.’’

Obama sent 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan earlier this year. But in a tough assessment of conditions on the ground, McChrystal warned that without more troops the United States could lose the war against the Taliban and its allies. Admiral Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman, also has endorsed a troop increase, telling Congress this month Afghan forces aren’t ready to fight the insurgency and protect the population on their own.