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Gates: Obama Had ‘Wide Array of Options’ for Reduction

By Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 23, 2011 – President Barack Obama had a range of options to select from when setting the timeline to start bringing U.S. forces home from Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates speaks with Jim Lehrer on PBS NewsHour June 23, 2011. DOD screen grab
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The secretary made the comments during a PBS interview a day after the president announced his plan to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and another 23,000 by September 2012.

The 33,000 troops reflect the surge force Obama ordered as part of the strategy he released on Afghanistan in December 2009.

Gates said he asked Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, to outline several scenarios for how the president might draw down forces there.

“General Petraeus himself offered, at my request, a number of options that began as early as next July -- a year from this July -- and running into 2013,” Gates said. “So, the president had a wide array of options in front of him.”

The drawdown still will leave a significant number of troops in Afghanistan as part of the president’s strategy, Gates stressed.

“I think it’s important to remember that we’ll still leave some 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan,” he said. “And just as an example, we have increased the size of the Afghan security forces by over 100,000 during the last year.

“So, the whole idea of this strategy from the very beginning was for us to come in heavy with the surge, beat back the Taliban’s momentum, particularly in the south and southwest -- Helmand, Kandahar, that area,” he said.

Gates also discussed other goals with the strategy, including focusing on infiltration routes from Pakistan into eastern Afghanistan, and partnering more with Afghan forces.

“We also have the Afghan local police that are developing and are potentially a game changer because they are locals to the villages,” he added. “So, we’ve seen a lot of progress this year.”

Asked if he would consider the mission in Afghanistan a success, Gates said, “It is, in my view, if you define success the way I think we should, which is we have prevented the Taliban from forcibly overthrowing the Afghanistan government, the Afghan security forces can secure their own territory and prevent al-Qaida or other extremist groups from coming back and using it as a safe haven.”

The secretary also said he believes the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden improved the chances of a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

“I think those chances are pretty good,” he said. “There was a personal relationship between bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban. One of the things the Afghan government and the coalition demand is that the Taliban disavow any connection or support with al-Qaida going forward.”

Addressing questions on Libya, Gates said congressional proposals to withhold funds for further execution of U.S. military NATO operations there was a mistake.

“I think once we have our forces engaged, to deny funding for them would be a mistake. These allies, particularly the British, and the French and the Italians, for that matter, have really been a big help to us in Afghanistan,” he said. “They consider Libya a vital interest for them. Our alliance with them is a vital interest for us.

“So, as they have helped us in Afghanistan, it seems to me that we’re in a position of helping them with respect to Libya and to cut off funding for the U.S. forces, in that context, I think, would be a mistake,” he added.

Gates also talked about the strains of multiple deployments and their impacts on military families.

“We have a lot of people in the military, particularly in combat arms, who have been on repeated rotations. I run into people, routinely, who have had three, four, five, six rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan. And they come home for a year, then they’re deployed for a year,” Gates said.

“Now that’s beginning to improve with the drawdown of 100,000 troops in Iraq,” he added. “But it’ll probably be this fall before most Army units get to one- year deployed, two years at home. And it’s just the repetition of this over all these years in Iraq and Afghanistan that has really taken a toll.”

Gates said his proudest work has been in doing all he can to bring U.S. forces home safely.

“Giving them these heavily armored vehicles, these mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles; giving them one-hour medevac or less in Afghanistan; more reconnaissance capabilities to prevent them from being attacked; trying to do whatever was necessary to help them accomplish their mission and come home safely,” he said.

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