Gates Predicts U.S. Will be in Iraq and Afghanistan ‘for Years to Come’
By Pete Winn
Defense Secretary Robert Gates predicts the U.S. will be in Afghanistan for years to come.
In an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Gates laid out the state of the U.S. military -- and how well it is poised to face the future.
Gates, who came to his post under Bush and was asked to stay by Obama, said the ability of the United States to deal with future threats will depend on how it performs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“To be blunt, to fail -- or to be seen to fail -- in either Iraq or Afghanistan would be a disastrous blow to U.S. credibility, both among friends and allies and among potential adversaries,” Gates wrote.
Gates said the number of U.S. combat units in Iraq will decline over time – “as it was going to do no matter who was elected president in November,” he added.
“Still, there will continue to be some kind of U.S. advisory and counterterrorism effort in Iraq for years to come,” he said.
In Afghanistan, however, troop levels will likely continue to increase in the year ahead.
“Afghanistan in many ways poses an even more complex and difficult long-term challenge than Iraq -- one that, despite a large international effort, will require a significant U.S. military and economic commitment for some time,” the defense secretary and former CIA head wrote.
Retired Lt. Col Bob Maginnis, a strategic adviser to the Pentagon, told CNSNews.com that Gates is being pragmatic and objective about the daunting challenges we face.
“First of all, taking down a country, replacing it with a viable government and then securing that country in a hostile arena such as the Persian Gulf, is going to take some time,” he said.
Maginnis, a counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism expert who has trained troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, agreed that some kind of American presence will be needed in Iraq for years to come.
“Yes, we’re going to downsize out troop levels as we bring up the Iraqi police forces and security forces, but it’s going to require some presence by our trainers and by our professional military for some time, to basically provide an insurance policy for them so that they have an honest chance to get themselves going in the right direction,” Maginnis added.
Afghanistan, he agreed, is an incredibly difficult environment by anyone’s standards.
“It’s locked in the 14th Century, there’s very little infrastructure. It’s a very large country – it’s much larger than Iraq – and it’s surrounded by hostile neighbors,” he said.
“You’ve got Iran on the West; Pakistan, with a 500-mile common border where you have all kinds of insurgents flowing back and forth and the Pakistani government has very little control over the No man’s land -- the Pashtun heartland where al-Qa’ida and the Taliban had refuge for many years. Then there’s China, a small piece to the Northwest and all the ‘-stans’ to the north.”
“If we’re going to do anything meaningful, it’s going to take decades and decades,” Maginnis said. “Whether we are going to have patience for that long is a fair question. I’m not sure we will.
“Especially now that we’re increasing our troop presence, all we’re going to be able to do is bring a modicum of security there for awhile, until that patience runs out,” Maginnis said.
“The money is going to run out long before the patience will. That’s in part why the Soviets departed in the ‘80s. They just couldn’t put up with the kind of environment they were facing – much less they couldn’t afford it.”
The U.S. has had some successes in Afghanistan, Maginnis said, “but the only part of the country that is truly under control is Kabul, the capital. And the current government there is incredibly corrupt.”
Unlikely to Repeat Iraq, Afghanistan
The Secretary of Defense, meanwhile, predicted that direct military force “will continue to play a role in the long-term effort against terrorists and other extremists” – but the U.S. is going to have to turn toward using soft – or indirect -- power.
“(O)ver the long term,” he wrote, “the United States “cannot kill or capture its way to victory,” adding that wherever possible, the U.S. should engage in promoting better governance and economic programs in countries to defeat extremists.
Gates added that the United States is unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan -- forced regime change followed by nation building under fire -- anytime soon.
“We’re not going to go in an take over another country, but there are plenty of failed states around the world,” Gates wrote.
“The most likely catastrophic threats to the U.S. homeland -- for example, that of a U.S. city being poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack -- are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states,” he added.
Maginnis, meanwhile, pointed out that many of those “failed states” are in Africa.
“You have pieces of Somalia that are brewing and overflowing with radicals who have our demise in mind,” he said. “You have problems with Ethiopia and Eritrea. Kenya is unstable and of course you have the entire Maghreb region – Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria.”
There are off-shoots of al-Qai’da in the North African desert region.
“They had been a home-grown type of insurgency, but have mushroomed into something much larger and because they are unpoliced for most of the Maghreb, they have been growing in their capabilities and funding from outside.”
Gates, meanwhile, said one of greatest challenges the U.S. faces is in strategic communication – getting the U.S. message out to a hostile world – and the U.S. intelligence community, which languished under the Clinton administration.
“In many ways, the country's national security capabilities are still coping with the consequences of the 1990s, when, with the complicity of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, key instruments of U.S. power abroad were reduced or allowed to wither on the bureaucratic vine,” Gates wrote.