The Pentagon's chief is undertaking the tricky task of trying to persuade allies to remain committed to the war in Afghanistan even as the Obama administration debates whether to send more troops to fight.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is undecided — at least publicly — on whether to order more forces to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, as his top commander there has requested, or to focus more narrowly on al-Qaida terrorists believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
Gates was departing Sunday on a weeklong mission to Japan, Korea and Slovakia — in part to ask NATO partners and Asian allies for continued contributions to a war now in its ninth year.
Perhaps mindful of asking others for help amid the U.S. indecision, Gates isn't only seeking military aid.
"A lot of the very valuable contributions in Afghanistan are on the development and the training, with the police and other aspects of civil life," a senior defense official at the Pentagon said last week on condition of anonymity to discuss Gates' travels more candidly.
Allies show signs of pulling back
Allies, however, are showing signs of pulling back. Japan is withdrawing two naval ships out of the Indian Ocean that have been used as refueling stops for allies en route to Afghanistan. And Great Britain said this week it will deploy a small but symbolic force of 500 additional troops — but only if NATO and the Afghanistan government do more to fight the Taliban.
The U.S. defense official said it's likely that Gates will discuss the January pullout of the refueling mission with Japanese ministers when he is in Tokyo on Tuesday. But he doesn't expect to change the mind of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who took office last month and wants Japan to take other steps to restore peace in Afghanistan.
The visit will mark the first Obama administration Cabinet official to travel to Japan since Hatoyama's election.
"We understand that they are looking for other ways to make a contribution," said the defense official, who nonetheless described the refueling operation as "of great value to the coalition."
Gates will not be asking the Japanese for any specific aid, the defense official said. Japan is already helping to train Afghan police forces.
It's not clear whether Gates will ask South Korea for more help beyond medical and job-training assistance that nation is already supplying in Afghanistan. "We would hope that Korea would continue to see it in their interest to provide aid of whatever form is appropriate," the defense official said.
Decision to wait until after Gates return
Gates will be in Seoul on Wednesday. From there, he goes to Bratislava, Slovakia, on Thursday to meet NATO defense ministers for what Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said would be a discussion focusing mostly on Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama is not expected to decide on a U.S. strategy for Afghanistan or Pakistan until after Gates returns. Obama administration officials have said the president's decision will come before he leaves on his own Asia trip in mid-November.
Until then, Gates "is really in a difficult position," said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and retired Navy commander who was stationed in at the military air field in Bagram, Afghanistan until April.
"His line is going to have to be, 'Bear with us until we figure out what we're going to do,'" Nelson said Friday, forecasting Gates' upcoming meetings overseas. "Really, what he's asking them is not to leave and to be patient. He can't ask them for more or to go above and beyond what they're already done."