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U.S. is 'in this thing to win,' Gates says of Afghan war

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he will meet with U.S. troops in Afghanistan "just to thank them for their service, for their sacrifice and to tell them we are in this thing to win."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he will meet with U.S. troops in Afghanistan "just to thank them for their service, for their sacrifice and to tell them we are in this thing to win." (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/associated Pres)

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

KABUL -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in this war-torn country Tuesday morning on an unannounced visit, prepared to offer U.S. troops a message from Washington after President Obama's decision to boost troop levels significantly: "We are in this thing to win."

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"A big piece of it, of my conversations especially with the soldiers, will be just to thank them for their service, for their sacrifice and to tell them we are in this thing to win," Gates, speaking to reporters traveling with him, said before his arrival here.

Gates, the first senior U.S. official to travel to Afghanistan since Obama's announcement, said he will stress to President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials that the United States will not abandon them as it did in 1989, when the Soviet Union left in defeat. The United States had backed forces fighting the Soviets, but ended its support after Moscow quit the war, paving the way for Taliban rule.

"We are not going to repeat the experience of 1989," Gates said. As U.S. troops begin to depart in favor of trained Afghan forces, developmental and economic aid will continue to flow, he stressed. "We intend to be their partner for a long time to come," Gates said.

Gates's remark that the United States is in the battle in Afghanistan "to win" marked an unusual description of the mission here by an administration official.

Obama has shied away from such expressive language, either in his speech last week announcing the decision to add at least 30,000 troops or when he first announced an Afghanistan strategy in March.

The president told ABC News in July that he felt uncomfortable using the term "victory" when fighting a "a non-state actor, a shadowy operation like al-Qaeda," because the goal is to prevent attacks on the United States and because there will never be a signing ceremony with a defeated enemy. But Gates, in using the language of win and lose, must calibrate his message for soldiers waging war under difficult conditions.

Noting "some of the units have taken a lot of casualties," Gates said he would seek soldiers' views on "the way forward." That might include issues such as whether their equipment is adequate and whether they are ready to handle the difficult logistics of quickly moving 30,000 fresh troops into the country, bringing total U.S. forces to about 100,000.

During three months of deliberations, Obama pressed to speed up the deployment of new forces. "We would not have agreed to a shorter timeline if the logistic folks and the folks out there hadn't thought it possible," Gates said. "It is going to be a heavy lift, there's no question about it."

The Defense Department announced Monday the deployment of 16,000 troops, including 8,500 Marines, as the initial element of Obama's troop surge.

Gates also said he is pleased that NATO countries have stepped up with contributions to the international force to augment the U.S. troop surge. He said he had expected commitments of 5,000 additional NATO troops, but at least 7,000 were pledged last week and the number will probably be higher.

"Since spring, I have been surprised by the change in tone" in NATO, Gates said, which he attributed to "the consequences of not being successful to the alliance and the greater sense of commitment to this thing." He said he was not sure why the mood had changed, "but I do think there is perception of a change in tone in Washington."

Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, added with a laugh: "I know I've been nicer to them than I was earlier."


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