As the war in Afghanistan faces a loss of public and congressional support and U.S. casualties rise sharply, the Obama administration is painting its goals for the war as humble and achievable while warning there is no quick fix.
“Nobody thinks that Afghanistan is going to be a model Jeffersonian democracy,” President Barack Obama said in a television interview that aired Sunday.
“What we’re looking to do is difficult — very difficult — but it’s a fairly modest goal, which is: Don’t allow terrorists to operate from this region. Don’t allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks against the U.S. homeland with impunity,” Obama said in an interview broadcast by CBS’ “Sunday Morning.”
July was the deadliest month for U.S. forces in the nearly nine-year war, with 66 troops killed. Military officials predict the toll will be even higher for several months to come, as U.S., NATO and Afghan forces intensify fighting in Taliban-controlled areas.
The troop surge Obama ordered last year was meant to make that expanded fight possible, but it also guaranteed higher combat deaths and a renewed focus on whether a war that remains a stalemate is still worth fighting.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates predicted that only a small number of U.S. forces will come home next summer, when Obama has said he will begin phasing out the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan. A large number of U.S. forces will remain past the start of that drawdown, Gates said, and he gave no estimate for when all U.S. forces might leave.
“My personal opinion is that drawdowns early on will be of fairly limited numbers,” Gates said. “As we are successful, we’ll probably accelerate.”
Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, used television interviews Sunday to try to reassure Afghan and Pakistani leaders that the U.S. will not abandon the fight.
“I think we need to re-emphasize the message that we are not leaving Afghanistan in July of 2011. We are beginning a transition process and a thinning of our ranks,” Gates said, “and the pace will depend on the conditions on the ground.”
Mullen acknowledged that time and patience are short, and that all the fighting so far has not neutralized the Taliban as a military force. Some military assessments from within Afghanistan conclude the insurgency is more potent. Whiffs of that conclusion emerged from tens of thousands of leaked secret war assessments that Mullen decried as an appalling breach of trust.
“I don’t think that the Taliban being stronger than they’ve been since 2001 is, is news,” Mullen said, noting the insurgency regained momentum over several years.
The Taliban’s firmer purchase on key areas of Afghanistan while U.S. and allied forces challenge that territory for the first time makes the coming year crucial, military officials and members of both political parties agree.
“I certainly understand it is the ninth year, it is a long time, the sacrifices have been significant,” Mullen said. “At the same time, I think the strategies are right.”
Release of the nearly 77,000 secret military records from the war has done real harm but hasn’t affected the U.S. war strategy, Mullen said.
Gates accused the website WikiLeaks, which posted the material a week ago, of “moral culpability” for potentially deadly repercussions. The Taliban can glean a lot about U.S. tactics and sources from the documents, Gates said.
“That’s where I think the verdict is guilty on WikiLeaks,” Gates said. “They have put this out without any regard whatsoever for the consequences.”
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, acknowledged the slide in support for the war among congressional Democrats.
“They have the impression that things are not going well now, at least the majority,” Levin said of Americans. “But I think the public does want us to succeed,”
Levin has been skeptical of parts of the strategy Obama adopted, but he sounded cautiously optimistic on Sunday.
“I think there’s really signs of progress. It’s a mixed picture,” he said.
A top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said he could foresee a collapse of congressional support next year if conservative Republicans yank their backing to make Obama look bad and if anti-war Democrats insist on a pullout.
“I do worry about an unholy alliance with the right and left coming together next summer, if we’re not showing progress, to basically de-fund this war,” Graham said.
“Afghanistan is a work in progress,” he said. “To lose there would be disastrous. To win there would be monumental. And I think we’ve got a good chance of winning, but by no means is the outcome certain.”
Mullen spoke on NBC’s “Meet The Press” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Gates was on ABC’s “This Week.” The senators were on CNN’s “State of the Union.”