Afghan deadline 'a mistake'

2009-09-27 19:31

Washington - Defence Secretary Robert Gates is pushing back against liberal calls for withdrawal timelines from Afghanistan, saying it's a mistake to set a deadline to end US military action and a defeat would be disastrous for the US.

In a stern warning to critics of a continued troop presence in Afghanistan, Gates said the Islamic extremist Taliban and al-Qaeda would perceive an early pullout as a victory over the US as similar to the Soviet Union's humiliating withdrawal in 1989 after a 10-year war.

"The notion of timelines and exit strategies and so on, frankly, I think would all be a strategic mistake. The reality is, failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the US," Gates said in an interview broadcast on Sunday on CNN's State of the Union.

"Taliban and al-Qaeda, as far as they're concerned, defeated one superpower. For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think, would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energising the extremist movement, al-Qaeda recruitment, operations, fundraising, and so on. I think it would be a huge setback for the US."

Gates' pointed remarks came as President Barack Obama re-examines his administration's strategy in Afghanistan and as the Pentagon sits on a request for additional troops from General Stanley McChrystal, the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan.

Gates said Obama has made no decision on whether to send additional troops. He said if Obama were to choose to increase combat forces, they would not be able to mobilise until January.

Flexible timeline

The prospect of sending additional soldiers has created a backlash among some Democrats in Congress and has angered anti-war activists on the left who rallied behind Obama's presidential candidacy last year.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called for a specific date for the withdrawal of US forces. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has said the administration should set a "flexible timeline" to draw down troops. Others, such as Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin of Michigan, have not gone as far, but have urged Obama not to escalate the war.

Obama sent 21 000 additional troops to Afghanistan earlier this year. But in a tough assessment of conditions on the ground, McChrystal warned that without more troops the US could lose the war against the Taliban and its allies. Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Mike Mullen also has endorsed more troops, telling Congress this month that Afghan forces are not ready to fight the insurgency and protect the population on their own.

Gates rejected suggestions of a split over troop levels between the Pentagon's uniformed leadership on one side and Gates and Obama on the other.

"Having the wrong strategy would put even more soldiers at risk," he told ABC television's This Week. "So I think it's important to get the strategy right and then we can make the resources decision."

He said the strategy review would be "a matter of weeks", but he said he would not submit McChrystal's request for troops to the president "until I think - or the president thinks - it's appropriate to bring that into the discussion of the national security principles".

In veiled criticism of the Bush administration, which he also served as defence secretary, Gates said the US was too preoccupied with Iraq to have a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan.

"The strategy that the president put forward in late March is the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s," he said.