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

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.

"If the Taliban believe that America is heading for the exits next summer in large numbers, they'll be deeply disappointed and surprised to find us still very much in the fight," Gates said.

Gates also highlighted some of the American priorities in Afghanistan over the next several months, including a promise that the United States would take a tough stand against corruption within the Afghan government -- an effort that risks alienating President Hamid Karzai and other members of his administration.

"We are committed to enforcing a hard line against corruption that exploits the Afghan people and saps their support for their elected government," he said. "That includes making sure American tax dollars and other assistance are not being misused."

U.S and Afghan officials will also press forward with controversial efforts to recruit and train village security forces, Gates said.

Karzai and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, are developing a plan to organize community defense forces in an effort to build confidence in the Afghan government, hold off the Taliban and check the power of the Afghan police and army.

The community-based security forces were a top priority of Petraeus's predecessor in Afghanistan, but they were stalled by Karzai who worried the local units could turn into militias. Senior Afghan officials also saw the forces as a potential competitor to the relatively weak and unpopular government in Kabul.

Although Afghan civilian casualties and U.S. fatalities show no sign of abating, the United States has had increasing success in targeting Taliban leaders.

"The enemy is paying a price for its crimes," Gates said. "More than 350 Taliban commanders have been killed or captured in the past three months. These efforts will only accelerate as our military offensive rolls back the enemy."

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