Gates’ time frame for Afghanistan

GATES’ TIME FRAME FOR AFGHANISTAN…. Following up on Peter Bergen’s much-discussed piece in the July/August issue of the Washington Monthly on U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates elaborated for the first time yesterday on his own expectations for progress in the war-torn country.

After eight years, U.S.-led forces must show progress in Afghanistan by next summer to avoid the public perception that the conflict has become unwinnable, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a sharp critique of the war effort.

Gates said that victory was a “long-term prospect” under any scenario and that the U.S. would not win the war in a year’s time. However, U.S. forces must begin to turn the situation around in a year, he said, or face the likely loss of public support.

“After the Iraq experience, nobody is prepared to have a long slog where it is not apparent we are making headway,” Gates said in an interview. “The troops are tired; the American people are pretty tired.”

Gates did not elaborate on what, exactly, would happen if conditions in Afghanistan have not improved a year from now, but the Defense Secretary nevertheless talked about the time frame he has in mind for progress in the country, defended the new U.S. policy that offers promise after deterioration in recent years, and conceded that an indefinite war is untenable — politically and strategically.

On a related note, the Washington Post‘s Pamela Constable had a very interesting piece on Afghanistan yesterday, highlighting some of the recent changes in the country, at least as far as our efforts are concerned.

When the U.S. Marines burst into Khan Neshin with guns blazing early this month, they quickly defeated insurgent forces in the volatile district of southern Helmand province and declared it Taliban-free.

But the military assault also left a void that urgently needed to be filled and a host of problems that posed very different challenges. There was no sign of official services or control in the long-conflicted region: no aid agencies, no judges to settle land disputes and no officials to register voters for presidential elections next month.

The Marines, drawing on their experiences in Iraq and working closely with British forces and newly arrived teams of U.S. civilian specialists, did not let Khan Neshin languish for long. Within several days they had sent in a small international “stabilization team,” installed a new Afghan district governor and raised an Afghan flag in the central market.

“This fight must not be focused on the Taliban but on the people,” said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary force in Helmand, speaking Thursday at a base near this provincial capital. As soon as an area is cleared of insurgents, he said, “the key is how to quickly reach into a community that has been terrorized, that is not sure whether the Taliban will come back and whether we will stay.”

This is, of course, one story from one area, which U.S. officials hope will serve as a “model” for a broader new policy. But the Afghan government is still struggling, services are still scarce, and a new U.S. approach to disrupting the poppy trade by focusing on interdiction of drug traffickers is “trickier and more dangerous” than the previous eradication policy.