Pentagon's Gates Keeps Single-Minded Focus on Dual Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

On a rainy night in March, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to witness the military's ritual for welcoming home its war dead.

In a small building next to the tarmac, an officer briefed the defense secretary on the four deceased troops arriving that evening. They had been driving along a rutted road near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, when their Humvee hit a powerful roadside bomb.

Gates flashed with anger, according to people with him that day. He had spent most of his tenure in the Pentagon pushing to replace Humvees in Afghanistan and Iraq with Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, built to withstand such blasts. "Find out why they hadn't gotten their goddamn MRAPs yet," he snapped at his staff.

Clad in the black suit he had worn to work that morning in the Pentagon, Gates climbed into the cargo hold of the white 747 bearing the remains. From the ground, troops could see the defense secretary as he knelt, alone, by the flag-draped transfer cases. Five minutes passed.

Then Gates, a small man with white hair neatly combed across his head, appeared in the plane's door and summoned the chaplain and the honor guard to begin the 17-minute welcome-home ritual.

A few days later, he was asked at a Pentagon news conference if he would talk about his visit. He started to answer the question but stopped. "Actually, no," he said. "I will tell you it was very difficult."

Gates's experience at Dover offers a window into what is driving him as he seeks to remake Washington's biggest and most ponderous bureaucracy. For decades, the Pentagon's focus has been on building expensive, high-tech weapons programs for conventional wars. Gates has embarked on an ambitious effort to force the department to focus more of its energy on developing arms and equipment that can help troops on the ground as they battle insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

His push to refocus the department comes as the war in Afghanistan appears in stalemate and violence against U.S. troops and Afghan forces is on the rise. In neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have carved out a haven from which they can launch attacks on U.S. troops, the government's hold on power throughout the country has grown shakier.

Last week, Gates fired the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The new commanders will be responsible for fighting the war and implementing President Obama's new strategy. Gates sees his job as making sure they have the tools they need.

An Emphasis on Now

The deteriorating conditions in the two countries seem to have sharpened the secretary's sense of urgency. His 2010 defense budget, introduced this month, proposes to cut or curtail a spate of large-scale weapons programs.

"Listening to our troops and commanders, unvarnished and unscripted, has from the moment I took this job been the greatest single source of ideas on what the department needs to do," he told lawmakers Wednesday. When some lawmakers questioned whether he had done the rigorous analysis to justify his budget cuts, Gates responded in his flat Kansas twang that the Pentagon is "drowning in analysis." Most of the changes he'd made were "kind of no-brainers," he said. Gates declined to be interviewed for this article.

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