Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave an interview yesterday to Tavis Smiley of PBS (watch it at PBS) that was refreshingly candid and frank. While the interview was wide-ranging covering topics from Iraq to re-enlistment quotas to intelligence gathering to Iran, the Secretary's comments on Afghanistan deserve greater attention. Here's the relevant part of the transcript:
Tavis: You mentioned Afghanistan earlier, Mr. Secretary. Let's travel there quickly. I don't mean to make you political in this sense. We all know and acknowledge you were not part of the Obama campaign. President Obama, once elected, asked you to stay on and you agreed to serve and I'm honored to have you on the program.
That said, there were expectations that many Americans had about how he was going to handle Iraq, how he was going to handle Afghanistan. Many Americans who voted for him didn't think that meant sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. How should the American public contextualize that decision?
Gates: I think that what the president has decided is really quite consistent with what he said during the campaign. I think that he made clear during the campaign he intended to send more troops to Afghanistan. I think that he made clear he was going to draw down our troops in Iraq. He had a 16-month period that he talked about in Iraq. He also said he would listen to the ground commanders and it was based on that dialogue that he agreed to 19 months instead of 16.
So I think that he has kept the commitments that he made during the campaign, but he has shown some flexibility in terms of the realities on the ground, I think, in both places.
Tavis: What does it mean that everybody in authority in Washington - in the White House, in Congress, in the Defense Department - everybody agrees that we are simply not winning in Afghanistan. What does that mean?
Gates: Well first of all, I think the situation is more complex than that in the sense that there are areas of the country, particularly in the north and in the west, that are relatively peaceful and where there has not been a significant spike in violence.
The eastern area is not in bad shape. The biggest problem that we face is in the southern part of Afghanistan, which is sort of the Taliban homeland. So we have a different situation in different parts of the country, and it's in - I would say it's in the south where we would all agree we're not winning, and that's one of the reasons why we're going to increase our troop presence there as well as the civilian presence.
Tavis: The White House has floated Mr. Obama - President Obama himself, Vice President Biden. They have floated this notion of perhaps working with the Taliban, trying to get those who are disaffected, those who have a different point of view after all this time, working with those members - certain members of the Taliban to help us fight Al Qaeda. Your thoughts on that?
Gates: I think almost all insurgencies, in the end game, involve political reconciliation. The issue is it needs to be on the terms of the government of Afghanistan. This is a matter mainly between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban.
There are elements of the Taliban that are absolutely irreconcilable and frankly will have to be killed. But there may be other elements that are willing to - and maybe a majority who are in it who do it because it's a job, because they get paid. There may be some who do it for other reasons, but I think there is the potential for reconciliation.
I think the key is it must be organized between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and I believe it needs to be on the terms set by the government of Afghanistan.
Tavis: What would be the incentive for those who chose to fight with us against Al Qaeda, what would the incentive be?
Gates: Well, to bring peace to the villages and towns and countryside of their homeland, of Afghanistan. There's some evidence that a fair number of the Taliban are not committed Islamists or extremists, and so they may be able to be wooed away.
Secretary Gates, I think, accurately clarified the 'not winning in Afghanistan' remarks. Vice President Biden caused a stir earlier this week in Brussels when he replied to a question imprecisely, "We are not now winning the war, but the war is far from lost." Secretary Gates was more precise. The problem is clearly most acute in the southern provinces and to a significant degree in the eastern provinces. These areas, of course, are the ones that ring Pakistan and that form Pashtunistan. Still, to win in Afghanistan does mean pacifying the Pashtun homeland and just as important, if not more, solving Pakistan. The Vice President, however, might have added the war is also far from won.