By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview broadcast this week that the United States would not repeat the mistake of abandoning Afghanistan, vowing that "both Afghanistan and Pakistan can count on us for the long term."
In his first interview with the al-Jazeera television network, Gates said the United States made a "serious strategic mistake" by turning its focus away from Afghanistan after Soviet occupation forces were defeated there two decades ago.
"As soon as the Soviets left Afghanistan, we turned our backs on Afghanistan and we did not cultivate our relationship with the Pakistanis properly," he said, noting that U.S. decisions at the time sparked doubts about Americans' commitment to the region. "I believe we've learned our lesson."
Gates's remarks come as he and other American officials weigh whether to deploy more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The defense secretary said he remained undecided on the issue.
"There are issues on both sides of [the argument] and, frankly, I haven't made up my own mind at this point in terms of whether more forces are needed," Gates said, according to a transcript of his 45-minute interview.
Gates was scheduled to meet with President Obama on Tuesday to briefly discuss the assessment given to him last week by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Pentagon officials said. The officials added that Gates has received comments on the assessment from senior military leaders including Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, and plans to present his own detailed views to Obama later this week.
Gates acknowledged in the interview with al-Jazeera that the heavier fighting and growing number of casualties in Afghanistan have weakened public support for the war. "There is a sort of war awareness on the part of the American people," Gates said.
He added, though, that the possibility of withdrawal is out of the question.
The U.S. military recognized as early as 2005 and 2006 that violence was escalating in Afghanistan, Gates said, but was unable to bolster forces there because of U.S. troop commitments in Iraq. "We have to speak frankly: Because of the troop commitments in Iraq, we didn't have the resources to move in reinforcements . . . as the situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate," he said.
Gates explained that he did what he could after taking office in January 2007, extending one Army brigade in Afghanistan and adding a second brigade that spring. "That was really about all the resources that we had at that time," he said. "As we have drawn down in Iraq, more capability has become available."