As combat operations end in Iraq, Gates hails shift in focus to Afghanistan

The careers of a generation of Army officers have been defined by the chaos and contradictions of the Iraq war.
By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 12:53 PM

MILWAUKEE - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Tuesday called on a war-weary American public for patience in Afghanistan, arguing that after years of neglect the United States had finally devoted the necessary resources to a conflict that has long been overshadowed by the Iraq war.

"With the invasion of Iraq, our attention - and resources - were diverted," Gates told an audience at an American Legion national convention in Milwaukee. "Afghanistan became a second-tier priority for troops, equipment and security and development assistance."

Gates's remarks preceded a rare Oval Office address by President Obama, scheduled for Tuesday night, that will mark the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, a major step in fulfilling the president's campaign pledge to end the war. Despite a diminished U.S. role in Iraq and some of the lowest levels of violence since the insurgency there took hold, the Iraq war remains far from finished. About 50,000 U.S. troops remain in the country to advise and train Iraqi forces.

(Photo gallery of soldiers reflecting on the Iraq war)

Post-election haggling by Iraqi politicians has also hampered the formation of a government in the country and stoked fears that the political unrest could fuel the weakened insurgency. "I am not saying all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq," Gates said in his speech. "Sectarian tensions remain a fact of life, al-Qaeda in Iraq is beaten, but not gone. This is not a time for premature victory parades or self congratulations."

Vice President Biden arrived in Baghdad on Monday to urge Iraqis to work through the election impasse.

(Video of Biden visit)

An emotional Gates recounted the costs of the Iraq war as well as its successes.

"Today, at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 4,427 American service members have died in Iraq, 3,502 of them killed in action; 34,268 gave been wounded or injured," Gates said.

He made clear that Iraq is rapidly becoming yesterday's war for the U.S. military. In Afghanistan, the last of the 30,000 new U.S. forces ordered into the fight by Obama last December are finally arriving, bringing the total American and NATO forces in the country to about 150,000.

"For the first time in nine years, we now have the resources . . . needed for this fight," Gates said.

The defense secretary promised that U.S. soldiers and Marines would gradually begin to transfer responsibility for security to Afghan forces beginning in July, but he also made clear that only modest reductions in U.S. forces are likely.

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