Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled that President Obama may not be ready to send tens of thousands of additional troops to fight the war in Afghanistan, as the top military commander there has requested.
Instead, Gates told ABC's “This Week,” Obama will decide, within weeks, “whether or not to make adjustments in the strategy” in the wake of the country's recent election, as well as a dire new assessment of the war by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“And that includes the question of, is McChrystal's approach, in the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Central Command commander, the right approach?” Gates told host George Stephanopoulos. “And if so, then what would be the additional resources required?”
For many Democrats in Congress, as well as Obama's liberal base, there is no appetite for a further escalation, which could sway Obama away from a troop increase in an effort to avoid a showdown with his own party.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said there was little support among Democrats to provide supplemental funding that would likely be needed for a troop increase, and rank-and-file Democrats affirm those views.
“I'm heavily inclined not to be supportive of additional troops,” Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., told The Examiner. “I'd like to hear the rationale to sort this out, but it's been eight years. We have to have an exit strategy here, a timetable.”
Well aware of the political turmoil a troop surge would invite, the Obama administration on Sunday tried to shift the emphasis away from the part of McChrystal's report that calls for more military to fight the war.
“What he talks about in most of that assessment is not resources, but a different way of using U.S. forces and coalition forces in Afghanistan,” Gates told Stephanopoulos. “It talks about accelerating the growth of the Afghan national security forces. It spends a lot of time talking about how we stay on side with the Afghan people. This is mostly what McChrystal's assessment is about.”
Gates also appeared on CNN's “State of the Union,” where he told host John King that it would be a “strategic mistake” to provide a timeline and exit strategy in Afghanistan.
On “This Week,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., warned against trying to fight the war using a counterterrorism-only strategy, which would involve far fewer troops on the ground. He called for a counterinsurgency, which would involve a troop surge, “or we'd better get out.”
Gates may be caught in the middle. A leftover from the Bush administration, he fought hard to persuade members of Congress to support the 2007 military surge in Iraq, countering lawmakers' opposition to the strategy at private dinners held with small groups from key congressional committees. Gates has recently started meeting with lawmakers again, this time to talk about sending more troops to Afghanistan, but his tone is decidedly different, say those who have attended.
“When we met about the Iraq surge, he was really adamant in defending it, no matter how we argued against it,” one attendee said. “This time, he just listened.”