Conditions on the ground in Afghanistan will determine when, and to what degree, U.S. forces in that country will draw down, according to Department of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared on TV talk shows yesterday. They explained President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan strategy and the “July 2011” timeline.
“We are not leaving Afghanistan in July 2011,” Gates said on ABC’s This Week. Rather, it will be the date when U.S. forces hope to begin a “transition process and a thinning of our ranks.”
“The pace will depend on the conditions on the ground,” Gates said. “The president has been very clear about that. And if the Taliban are waiting for the 19th month, I welcome that, because we will be there in the 19th month, and we will be there with a lot of troops.”
Gates said U.S. forces in Afghanistan are working to reverse gains made by the Taliban and other militant groups, and the troops’ goal is defeating al-Qaida, not nation building. By denying the Taliban and al-Qaida control of the country, and by improving Afghan security forces, U.S. forces will prevent Afghanistan from becoming another staging ground for attacks on the United States, Gates said.
“We are not there to take on a nationwide reconstruction or construction projects in Afghanistan,” he said. “We are in Afghanistan because we were attacked from Afghanistan, not because we want to try and build a better society in Afghanistan.
“But doing things to improve governance, to improve development in Afghanistan, to the degree it contributes to our security mission and to the effectiveness of the Afghan government in the security arena, that’s what we’re going to do,” he added.
The way out of Afghanistan is through the Taliban reconciling on the Afghan government’s terms, Gates said. The Taliban, however, won’t lay down their arms and detach from al-Qaida without security and governance in place, he added.
Despite July being the deadliest month for U.S. troops in the entire nine-year war in Afghanistan, Mullen said U.S. forces remain steadfast. America must continue to focus on the Afghan people, and must show both Afghans and Pakistanis that the nation is committed to their security, Mullen said.
“We left Afghanistan in the late ’80s, [and] we left Pakistan in the late ’80s,” Mullen said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “And we find ourselves back there now. Certainly, the questions that are out there from the citizens … is, ‘Are they going to stay this time?'”
Mullen called the mission in Afghanistan a regional effort and the United States will be there for the long term, he said.
“I believe we’ve got to stay,” he said. “We’ve got the right strategy, we’ve got the right resources. Sadly and tragically, we predicted this would be a very difficult year, but we’ve got the right strategy and leadership, and this, over the course of the next year or so, is really a critical time.”