Gates, Petraeus Discuss Winning the Afghan War

The defense secretary and commander of Western forces are asked whether the war is being won.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David H. Petraeus, commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, meet at Camp Eggers in Kabul, December 7, 2010 (US Navy/Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell)
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David H. Petraeus, commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, meet at Camp Eggers in Kabul, December 7, 2010 (US Navy/Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell)

Although a summer deadline for the first troop withdrawals from Afghanistan is nearing, the war continues to see heavy fighting in areas where the Taliban have traditionally been strong. The date for a full transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans has been pushed back to 2014 but at home, the struggle is increasingly unpopular.

In Kabul, Afghanistan, ABC News’ Diane Sawyer asked two of America’s top military commanders whether the war was being won. “We’re making progress,” said General David Petraeus who is leading the multinational force in the country. “We’re really loathed to use this very loaded term of winning or losing,” he explained but “the momentum has changed.”

As Afghanistan braces for a violent fighting season, the general hasn’t made his recommendations for a drawdown in troop levels yet. Close to 100,000 American soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan and Petraeus likes to keep as many as possible for as long as he can.

Under Petraeus’ leadership, American combat operations in Afghanistan have mounted in number and intensity. Night raids increased spectacularly during the second half of last year while heavy armor was deployed to break the insurgency.

Although the “surge” of some 30,000 troops initiated last year allowed the United States and their allies in Afghanistan to reclaim territory in the south, the Taliban remain active in the Pashtun dominated Helmand and Kandahar Provinces while support is flowing in from tribal areas in neighboring Pakistan.

In its most recent assessment of the war, the administration admitted that tactical victories achieved in Afghanistan remain “fragile and reversible.” The existence of sanctuaries across the border with Pakistan in particular is hampering progress as they allow insurgents to regroup or simply wait out the Western war effort. According to Gates, the situation in Pakistan is changing though. “I think we have to work our way through that,” he said.

The Pakistanis have been reluctant to open another front against the extremists but may be inclined to expand their operations in North Waziristan, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested last week after visiting the country. The Pakistani military denied reports of an imminent full-scale offensive in the region as premature however.

The current strategy in Afghanistan hinges on the ability to transfer security and government responsibilities to a civilian administration that is fraught with nepotism and lacking authority outside the capital of Kabul. The Afghan army that is equipped and trained by Western nations remains largely incapable of operating on its own.

At over $100 billion a year, the war effort is also costly and increasingly unpopular at home. According to a poll conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post, more than half of Americans believe the war has not been worth fighting. 73 percent of respondents said the United States should withdraw a substantial number of troops from Afghanistan this summer.

Gates cautioned that the “judgement call has to be made in a context of a wide variety of issues.” Although the president has promised a substantial drawdown, Gates framed it as a “modest” one for July.

After pointing out that the war will probably be less expensive next year, the defense secretary urged legislators to wonder, “what’s the cost of failure? We’ve invested a huge amount of money here,” he said, along with many hundreds of lives lost. “Congress is almost always impatient” but it shouldn’t confine its decisionmaking to the short term. “I can say that,” he joked, “since I’m leaving in a few weeks.”

Neither Gates nor Petraeus will be in their current position to see the war through. The defense secretary is slated to be replaced by current intelligence director Leon Panetta who will be succeeded as head of the CIA by General Petraeus later this year.