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

Sam Stein

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)

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.

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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