Defense Secretary Wants War Advice to Obama Kept Private

By Ann Scott Tyson and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates cautioned military and civilian leaders Monday against publicly airing their advice to President Obama on Afghanistan, just days after the top U.S. general in that country criticized proposals being advocated by some in the White House.

"In this process, it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations -- civilians and military alike -- provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately," Gates said in a speech at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army.

The Army's top general immediately echoed Gates's remarks, which seemed designed to rein in dissent within the ranks.

The remarks by Gates and Gen. George W. Casey Jr. came four days after Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan, said publicly that a proposal to scale back significantly the U.S. military presence in the country would be "shortsighted." Since then, the administration has sought to tamp down the appearance of any divisions over strategy between McChrystal, Obama's handpicked commander, and the White House.

In a blunt assessment disclosed last month, McChrystal warned that the coalition's mission in Afghanistan could fail without a new military strategy and additional troops. Officials are reviewing that assessment and are discussing strategy in a series of meetings at the White House.

Late Monday, when asked at a roundtable discussion whether he is trying to muzzle McChrystal, Gates said: "Absolutely not." He added that he has full confidence in the general, saying, "I can't improve on General McChrystal's assessment -- that the situation is serious and deteriorating."

But, during the event at George Washington University, the defense secretary said he does not want McChrystal testifying before Congress -- as some lawmakers have requested -- until the president had decided on a policy.

"It would put General McChrystal in an impossible situation," Gates said.

There is significant support for McChrystal's stance in senior Army and military circles. At the Army meeting on Monday, some current and retired officers voiced concern that the administration lacks resolve to act on what they consider a strong assessment and set of recommendations from McChrystal.

"We all need to support McChrystal," said one retired senior military officer who served in Afghanistan, saying he believes McChrystal's diagnosis of the problem in the country is on the mark. The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently testified before Congress that more U.S. troops are probably needed in Afghanistan to regain the initiative from a resurgent Taliban.

Gates, in contrast, has said he is undecided about whether to deploy additional U.S. troops, although he acknowledged that McChrystal effectively mitigated some of his long-standing concerns that too large a troop presence would turn the Afghan population against the effort.

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