Asia-Pacific, Headlines, North America

POLITICS-US: Top Defence Chiefs Vow Focus on Afghanistan

Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Jan 28 2009 (IPS) - Both the top civilian and military leadership of the U.S. Department of Defence had busy days on Tuesday, fielding topically varied questions on their new policy priorities since President Barack Obama took office one week ago.

As Obama has long promised, moving Afghanistan to the top of the agenda was a main focus of Pentagon chief Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen.

Mullen, the top uniformed adviser to the country's civilian leadership, said that the military was working hard at putting together a "new strategy for the way forward in Afghanistan".

"I think the top priority for us right now is Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I think President Obama has made that clear," he told reporters during a briefing at the Department of State Foreign Press Centre here.

IPS Correspondent Gareth Porter talks to Real News.

The U.S. military establishment believed they could easily pressure President Obama to back down on his pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq within 16 months. Having found Obama unconvinced by their argument, they have now launched a campaign in Washington to blame Obama’s withdrawal policy for any future instability in Iraq.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Gates, the sole cabinet-level holdover from the era of President George W. Bush, was singing the same tune in his first appearance before the Senate Armed Services committee as part of the Obama administration.

"There is little doubt that our greatest military challenge right now is Afghanistan," he said. "President Obama has made it clear that the Afghanistan theatre should be our top overseas military priority."

Both men spoke of a regional and multifaceted solution to the war.

In his answers to questions, Mullen said that Obama has asked that the new strategy be "appropriately inclusive of our relationship with Pakistan as well as other nations in the region."

Mullen spoke of his close relationship with Pakistani army chief General Asfaq Kayani, and alluded to improved anti-terror cooperation since last year's political turmoil that resulted in the civilian coalition government led by pro-Western president Asif Ali Zardari, who has vowed to combat terror and extremism.

But Mullen also said that India and Iran could play beneficial roles in Afghanistan. The involvement of the former, he acknowledged, could create some tensions with their historic foe, Pakistan, which both viewed as essential to quelling violence in Afghanistan itself.

While Mullen would not comment on U.S. airstrikes at terror targets across the Pakistani border – a strategy that has caused resentment in Pakistan – Gates noted that the policy was one that had remained in place across both sides of the presidential transition and that the strikes would continue.

Mullen also emphasised the importance of Iran, which shares a large border with Afghanistan, as a regional partner whom he acknowledged presented some problems, though there was nonetheless "potential there for moving ahead together".

"I have said for many, many, months I think… it is important to engage Iran," he said. "Iran is unhelpful in many, many ways in many, many areas. And so I wouldn't be overly optimistic at this point. But there are mutual interests and I think that that might offer some possibilities."

Mullen also repeated the military goal of exploring new supply routes to Afghanistan, which are reportedly likely to come, with Russian cooperation, through former Soviet Central Asian republics.

The main U.S. supply route, from Pakistan through the Khyber Pass, has become dangerous because of regular Taliban raids on convoys, but with Afghanistan slowing down for the winter, the precise nature of the path won't be known until next spring's thaw.

"[S]ecurity is best achieved through and with the Afghan people with them in the lead, them ultimately in control," said Mullen.

Gates also noted the advantage of not having a U.S. solder knocking down doors, and instead, like Mullen, emphasised the importance of putting an "Afghan face" on the war effort.

Mullen said he is hopeful Obama would ask NATO allies to contribute more both in terms of troops on the ground and pledges of development aid.

"So I think that we need…a fully integrated civilian-military strategy. We need to, I think, have modest, realistic goals," Gates said.

Gates mentioned the possibility for economic development in Afghanistan, and Mullen praised increased non-military aid to Pakistan under a multi-year agreement, which he said was essential because of the U.S. history of "turn[ing] our backs on Pakistan".

The military aspect of the renewed effort to stabilise Afghanistan may carry political consequences at home, however, especially the stark terms in which Gates acknowledged the potential for becoming bogged down in a country he acknowledged was known as the "graveyard of empires".

Gates said there was "no purely military solution" to the U.S. and NATO's more than seven-year effort in Afghanistan, but also acknowledged that more troops will be needed to "provide a baseline level of security in some of the most dangerous areas – a vacuum that increasingly has been filled by the Taliban [insurgency]."

He also said, borrowing a phrase from the ranking Republican on the Senate committee, John McCain, that the war would be a "long slog" and that it was likely that with a beefed-up U.S. troop presence, the costs in blood and treasure were "likely" to increase.

In light of those considerations, Gates emphasised that the U.S. needed to be "careful" of goals it set for itself.

"My own personal view is that our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and our allies," he said. "And whatever else we need to do flows from that objective."

"[I]f we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there," he said, "we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money, to be honest… [I]t seems to me that we need to keep our objectives realistic and limited in Afghanistan; otherwise, we will set ourselves up for failure."

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