Defense 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 U.S. military action and a defeat would be disastrous for the U.S.
In a stern warning to critics of a continued troop presence in Afghanistan, Gates said the Islamic extremist Taliban and al-Qaida would perceive an early pullout as a victory over the United States 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 United States," Gates said in an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."
"Taliban and al-Qaida, 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 energizing the extremist movement, al-Qaida recruitment, operations, fundraising, and so on. I think it would be a huge setback for the United States."
War strategy under scrutiny
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 Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
McChrystal has said a different strategy on the ground as well as more troops are needed in Afghanistan. In a "60 Minutes" profile airing Sunday night, the commander argued for faster progress. "We could do good things in Afghanistan for the next 100 years and fail," he says. "Because we're doing a lot of good things and it just doesn't add up to success. And we've got to think quicker."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested Obama's decisions will come after the election in Afghanistan is sorted out.
"This is not like an election in Western Europe or the United States, to carry out an election in these circumstances was going to be difficult under any conditions. It's not over yet," Clinton told CBS television's "Face the Nation."
"We have to wait until it is resolved, hopefully very soon. Then make a new commitment on how to meet our strategic goals. And it's going to be up to the president to determine how best to achieve that."
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 mobilize until January.
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.
Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has said the administration should set a "flexible timeline" to draw down troops. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called for a specific date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
"I do not believe the American people want to be in Afghanistan for the next 10 years, effectively nation building," she told "Fox News Sunday."
Others, such as Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan, have not gone as far, but have urged Obama not to escalate the war.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said he hopes Obama will decide to commit the necessary troops.
"I think you will see signs of success in a year to 18 months, if we implement the strategy right away," McCain said on ABC television's "This Week."
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 United States could lose the war against the Taliban and its allies. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. 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.
Downplays suggestions of a split
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 defense secretary, Gates said the United States 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.