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Gates Contradicts Obama: Afghan 'Exit Strategy' a 'Strategic Mistake'

by Sam Stein

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Sunday it would be a "strategic mistake" for the U.S. to put a timeline or exit strategy on its presence in Afghanistan -- a position that appears to put him at direct odds with the president.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to the press in front of an MRAP vehicle during his visit to Forward Operating Base Airborne in the mountains of Wardak Province, Afghanistan in this May 8, 2009 file photo. (REUTERS/Jason Reed/Files) Appearing on CNN's "State of the Union," Gates insisted that far from being a quagmire, Afghanistan was a country that could be pacified and stabilized if the right policy was adopted. One thing the United States should not do, he added, was set deadlines or outline an approach by which military forces would eventually leave the country.

"I think that -- that the notion of -- of timelines and exit strategies and so on, frankly, I think would all be a, a strategic mistake," said Gates. "The reality is, failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States. 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 energizing the extremist movement, Al Qaeda recruitment, operations, fundraising, and so on."

Skepticism with exit strategies is a vestige of the approach the Bush administration took to the war in Iraq, where it was routinely predicted that insurgents would wait out American forces before overriding the country. But some politicians at the time -- notably then-Sen. Barack Obama -- insisted that deadlines for troop removal were important for, among other things, spurring political reconciliation within the country.

Not surprisingly, Obama has taken a similar approach to Afghanistan. In a March 20 interview with CBS' 60 Minutes, he insisted that "there's got to be an exit strategy" for U.S. forces in that country so that there is a "sense that this is not perpetual drift and stalemate."

"What we can't do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is gonna be able to solve our problems," Obama said. "One of the things that we have never done is ramped up the civilian side of the equation with agricultural specialists who can help farmers replace poppy as a crop with people who are able to electrify villages that have never seen electricity. We haven't done some of the diplomatic spade work that needs to be done. So what we're looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there's got to be an exit strategy."

The daylight between Gates and Obama on this issue is no small policy disagreement. Whether or not to lay out a tactical approach for getting U.S. forces out of Afghanistan is one of the major debates facing this administration as it considers sending an additional 40,000 troops to that country. Progressives -- deeply skeptical of the war in the first place -- are demanding that the president demonstrate that a "clear exit strategy" exists before making any additional troop decision. Obama would exhaust a serious amount of political goodwill with his base should he follow Gates and drop timelines or an exit plan from his Afghan policy.

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