With a decision from President Barack Obama on sending troops to Afghanistan potentially only weeks away, his defense secretary warned Sunday that failure in the country would be a “huge setback” for the United States.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates rejected calls from some Democrats to set a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. He said the Taliban and Al Qaeda would interpret an early pullout as a victory, similar to the Soviet Union’s Afghan defeat in 1989.
“Taliban and Al Qaeda, as far as they’re concerned, defeated one superpower,” Gates said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think, would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, Al Qaeda recruitment, operations, fundraising and so on. I think it would be a huge setback for the United States.”
On Iran, Gates said U.S. intelligence officials have “no doubt” that Iran’s once-secret underground fuel site “is an illicit nuclear facility.” But he stressed the need for diplomacy to end Iran’s nuclear program, saying “there is no military option that does anything more than buy time.”
“The Iranians,” said Gates, “are in a very bad spot now because of this deception.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the U.S. will not accept Iran’s descriptions of the nuclear facility at Qom at face value, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said on “Fox News Sunday” that Iran faces a “moment of decision on whether it will negotiate with the United States and other Western powers over its nuclear program.”
Foreign policy dominated the Sunday talk shows as the United States prepares for talks Thursday among Iran and four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, and Obama weighs what analysts expect to be a request for as many as 40,000 more troops for Afghanistan by the head of U.S. forces there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Gates suggested that the contested election in Afghanistan is the key factor that has made Obama increasingly reluctant to commit new troops, which he said could not be mobilized until January.
Clinton suggested the decision will come after the election in Afghanistan is sorted out.
“We have to wait until it is resolved, hopefully very soon,” she said.
Republican senators sparred over the potential troop buildup. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Kit Bond of Missouri called for swift action, while Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee argued that Obama needs time to figure out what success looks like in Afghanistan.
Bond, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that waiting to make such a decision could hurt the U.S. military effort there. The president’s ongoing review of the situation and a report by McChrystal is “dithering” rather than decisive leadership, Bond said.
“It’s here, it’s clear, it is in great detail, it outlines a full range of things [explaining] why we need troops,” Bond said of the McChrystal report on “Fox News Sunday.” “We need troops now. If we fail to provide troops now, it will be too late.”
Corker said Obama needed time to figure out the best course in Afghanistan.
“It is perfectly legitimate to spend some time trying to articulate what success is,” Corker said on CNN. “And until we can do that, it is appropriate to take some time.”
McCain, the Republican presidential nominee last year, said he can “sympathize” with the president now about the tough choices he faces in Afghanistan.
“The base of his party, the left base of his party, is opposed. The American people are weary of this conflict,” McCain said on ABC’s “This Week. “But I remind you that throughout [U.S.] history, whether it be Harry Truman or Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln, leaders have had to make tough choices, and history has judged them very kindly.”
McCain said he was “very hopeful that the president is going to make the right decision, which is to commit the necessary troops.”