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.
Gates said Afghanistan is on a "worrisome trajectory," with violence levels up 60 percent compared with last year. On Saturday, eight U.S. troops were killed in a major attack by Taliban insurgents in eastern Afghanistan.
During Monday's roundtable discussion, Gates said that if the Taliban took control of significant portions of Afghanistan, it would help al-Qaeda with fundraising and recruitment. Even more important, he said, the notion that the group has "come back from this defeat" and challenged the United States and NATO "is a hugely empowering message" for al-Qaeda.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said during Monday's regular briefing for reporters that Gates, who stayed on after the Bush administration, provides Obama with "unvarnished advice that doesn't have a political agenda." Obama "relies greatly on his viewpoints," Gibbs said.
The internal White House review of strategy for Afghanistan continues with meetings scheduled for Wednesday and Friday at the White House between Obama and senior national security advisers and military leaders.
During last week's three-hour review session, senior White House officials challenged a number of McChrystal's assumptions about the timing and goals of the war effort.
Some within the administration are considering -- and beginning to make the case for -- a narrower antiterrorism policy in Afghanistan rather than the expansive counterinsurgency campaign that the uniformed military favors. The more modest plan would maintain about the same number of combat troops in the near term while speeding up the training of Afghan forces, intensifying Predator drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives and supporting the nuclear-armed Pakistan government in its fight against the Taliban.
Still, Gibbs said Monday that withdrawing from Afghanistan is "not an option," even though the flawed Aug. 20 presidential election there has left the administration with an uncertain political partner to help carry out its strategy.
At the Army association meeting, Gates emphasized that, regardless of any differences within the administration on strategy, the Pentagon will dutifully execute Obama's orders.
"Speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability," he said.
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.