Weeks after President George W. Bush tapped Robert Gates to succeed Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defence, Gates paid a visit to Kabul to assess the war effort. It was obvious, he concluded, that the war in Iraq was sucking up all of the oxygen at the Pentagon, and that more US troops were needed in Afghanistan. During the next two years, until the election of President Barack Obama, Gates worked hard to draw down US forces in Iraq, consolidate the divergence in US and NATO commands in Afghanistan, and accelerate plans to beef up the Afghan army and police. All of that, it turned out, coincided with Obama’s own view that Iraq was a mistake but that Afghanistan was ‘the good war.’
In the year before Obama took office, Gates pressed NATO hard – often to the irritation of senior NATO officials and European leaders – to commit more troops and money to the war in Afghanistan. For Gates, Afghanistan was a test of NATO’s ability to work together, and he warned that unless NATO went all in, the alliance’s very existence was at stake. ‘We must not – we cannot – become a two-tiered alliance of those willing to fight and those who are not,’ he told a security conference in Munich. ‘Such a development, with all its implications for collective security, would effectively destroy the alliance.’
Indeed, for Gates the war in Afghanistan was a kind of experiment. ‘That country has become the laboratory for what I have been talking about for the past year – how to apply and fully integrate the full range of instruments of national power and international co-operation to protect our vital interests,’ he wrote in an op-ed in The Independent in October, 2008, on the eve of Obama’s election. That autumn, Gates also flatly predicted that the United States would accede to the request from the generals to add tens of thousands of troops to the war in the spring of 2009, even though it wasn’t clear whether Obama or John McCain would be commander-in-chief. ‘I believe we will be able to meet that commanders’ requirement, but in the spring and summer of 2009,’ Gates said.
Under Obama, Gates drew on his experience as director of the CIA to expand the Predator and Reaper drone programme. He backed military commanders, such as Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who wanted a troop-intensive counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, firing Gen. David McKiernan and replacing him with McChrystal and then Petraeus. And during the debate over escalating the war once again in late 2009, Gates strongly supported Petraeus and McChrystal’s demand for an additional 33,000 troops. According to Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars, Gates and the military command even dropped hints they’d resign if Obama didn’t give them what they wanted. ‘Not only McChrystal, but Petraeus, (Adm. Mike) Mullen, and even Gates might go – an unprecedented toppling of the military high command,’ wrote Woodward.
When Obama announced, in December, 2009, that he planned to start withdrawing US forces in July, 2011, Gates led the campaign to downplay the president’s policy, insisting that a withdrawal could be very limited. In the end, when Obama declared this month that he’d remove 33,000 troops by next summer, Gates – along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – argued against even that modest drawdown.
Robert Dreyfuss is an independent, investigative journalist in the Washington, D.C, area, who writes frequently for The Nation, Rolling Stone, and other publications.