David Rothkopf

America’s best secretary of defense and his final error

Robert Gates may well be the best secretary of defense the United States has ever produced. He has had an extraordinary national security career, distinguishing himself not only in terms of its duration or the number of senior positions he has held but even more so in terms of the quality of his service. He ...

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Robert Gates may well be the best secretary of defense the United States has ever produced. He has had an extraordinary national security career, distinguishing himself not only in terms of its duration or the number of senior positions he has held but even more so in terms of the quality of his service. He is capable, exceptionally intelligent, and an unhesitating truth-teller to presidents.

That is why it is important to very carefully weigh his statement on Monday that in Afghanistan "we’ve still got a ways to go and I think we shouldn’t let up on the gas too much, at least for the next few months." Clearly, it reflects a belief on his part — days before his departure from office — that continued application of U.S. military force at present levels of intensity could speed the movement of the Taliban to the negotiating table and thus make reconciliation talks and potential stability in that country more feasible sooner.

He is in a better position than almost anyone to make that judgment given the constant stream of intelligence and feedback he gets from his generals on the ground. That his view is apparently shared by General David Petraeus, America’s top commander there, adds credence to it.

"If we keep the military pressure on through this winter," he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post, "and we are able to hang on to what we’ve taken away from these guys over the last year to 18 months…then it may be that sometime around the end of this year these guys decide maybe we ought to start talking seriously about reconciliation. That certainly is my hope."

It is an understandable hope for a man who has devoted so much time to finding the best possible outcome for the United States in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, in this instance, Gates has it wrong. First, there is the issue of who he means by "these guys." While some elements of the Taliban and other anti-government forces in Afghanistan might be coaxed to the negotiating table as a consequence of further applied pressure from the U.S. military, it is almost certainly the case that these will neither be representative of the whole of anti-United States, anti-Karzai-government opposition nor will they be drawn from the most extremist and potentially disruptive elements from among our current enemies.

Further, even if such a group were to come to the table there is neither any guarantee that talks would be productive nor is there any that winning an extension in power for Karzai or some power-sharing government would actually ultimately make Afghanistan any more stable or any less likely to become a haven for terrorist groups. Given that the United States and our allies are unwilling to stay indefinitely and that we have set a deadline of 2014 for departure, a deadline so close as to virtually guarantee we can not know the viability of any regime established in the next year or two, we will have little long-term leverage to ensure the outcome Gates believes we should wait longer to attempt to produce.

Finally, most importantly, 2014 is effectively now. If you are in the Afghan opposition — a Taliban or a restless warlord or mischievous Pakistani ISI officer with an agenda — Gates’ message sounds a lot different to you than it does to American audiences. To Americans it sounds like "let’s get out slowly." But to the committed extremist all they hear is "let’s get out." What’s a few more months when you have been fighting for a decade…longer still since many of those fighting see this as a continuation of a war with the Russians that began more than three decades ago?

Go slow or go fast, they think, in three winters the invaders will be gone and the rules will change rapidly.

It is unreasonable to think that if ten years of waging this war have been so unfruitful that six or nine more months of perhaps 10,000 or 15,000 more troops will make much of a difference. And indeed, in the long run it will not and by leaving the troops there a little longer, by withdrawing a little more slowly, President Obama can say he listened to his generals, gave it every chance, and only then drew down more rapidly.

But lives will be lost in the interim. And every American troop on the ground costs roughly $1 million a year, so even a few thousand troops makes a difference of billions in expense to a strung-out U.S. budget. But more importantly, whatever the expense is, it is extremely unlikely to be effective and staying longer is likely to only have utility as a political exercise. The troops should go now, as fast as we can draw them down. We should not start with 5,000 troops, but a multiple of that. The New York Times piece today suggesting a group was emerging within the National Security Council advocating a more aggressive withdrawal is encouraging.

What seems likely to happen is that the president will stick with Gates and Petraeus on this but will try to send a message by announcing larger interim targets. It would be the kind of effort at balancing conflicting views with which the president has seemed most comfortable in the past. One set of headlines might read: the president sticks with military pull-out approach in the near-term while another says, the president will be more aggressive in getting out in the medium term.

Whatever the decision, the one thing that is certain is that for the United States, there is no long term in Afghanistan. This one is done. To paraphrase the old joke, we’ve already established whether this war is successful or not, now we’re just haggling over the final price.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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