Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that the contested election in Afghanistan is the key factor that’s made President Barack Obama increasingly reluctant to commit to new troops to Afghanistan and said Obama will make a decision in “a matter of a few weeks.”
Appearing on ABC's “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” Gates also predicted that it would be “one to three years” before Iran is able to go nuclear, and hedged on another deadline, saying “it’s going to be tough” to meet Obama’s January deadline for closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
For most of the interview, though, Gates parried tough questions from Stephanopoulos, who questioned why Obama, who laid out what he called a “new and comprehensive" Afghanistan strategy in March, was now saying he needed to settle on a strategy before responding to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops. McChrystal hand-delivered the troops request to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Admiral Mike Mullen on Saturday, though Gates said that he’s yet to show the document to the commander-in-chief.
“The key is whether the Afghans believe that their government has legitimacy,” Gates said, according to an advance transcript of the interview. “And everything that I've seen in the intelligence and elsewhere indicates that remains the case.”
Asked about how long the president would take to reach a decision, Gates said, “Well, I — you know, I — it's not going to take — I think it — it's a matter of a few weeks. And people should remember that the debate within the Bush administration on the [Iraq] surge lasted three months, from October to December, 2006.”
Gates’ remarks, taped on Friday, seemed to contradict those of Obama’s National Security Adviser, retired general Jim Jones, in Sunday’s Washington Post, where he told Bob Woodward that “I don’t have a deadline in mind.”
Gates did not say whether he believes a troop surge in Afghanistan is warranted.
“I think we know it when we see it,” Gates said. when asked to define victory in Afghanistan, “and we see it in Iraq. I think that success in Afghanistan looks a great deal like success in Iraq, in this respect, that the Afghan national security forces increasingly take the lead in protecting their own territory and going after the insurgents and protecting their own people.
“We withdraw to an overwatch situation and then we withdraw altogether.”
In a separate appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Gates endorsed General McChrystal as “the very best commanding officer we could possibly have there,” and called “the notion of timelines and exit strategies… a strategic mistake,” twice warning that “failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States.”
Drawing a comparison between Afghanistan and Iraq, Gates suggested the same strategic imperatives applied:
“Well, first of all, I'd like to remember — remind people that — that the debate within the Bush administration over the surge took about three months, from October to December 2006… We had the same kind of dialogue with General Odierno about the timing of pulling our combat units out of — out of Iraq and … it has proved to work very well.”
Asked by “State of the Union” host John King, “Is Afghanistan a quagmire?”, Gates said “I don't think so, and I think that, with a general like McChrystal, it won't become one.”
On Guantanamo, Gates said on ABC that he’d been a supporter of establishing a deadline for closing the prison since the transition, “because I know enough from being around this town that if you don't put a deadline on something, you'll never move the bureaucracy.”
But responding to reports this week that the administration is conceding it’s unlikely to meet the January deadline Obama set, Gates also downplayed the deadline’s importance:
"But I also said … if we find we can't get it done by that time but we have a good plan, then you're in a position to say it's going to take us a little longer but we are moving in the direction of implementing the policy that the president set.”
Stephanopolous followed up: “So the deadline of January 22nd will not be met?”
Gates replied, “It's going to be tough.”
On Iran, Gates said on ABC that “my personal opinion is that the Iranians have the intention of having nuclear weapons. I think the question of whether they have made a formal decision to — to move toward the development of nuclear weapons is — is in doubt.”
Gates warned on CNN’s that, “The reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time... the only way you end up not having a nuclear-capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons, as opposed to strengthened."
Making the case for sanctions, he said “I think there's still room left for diplomacy,” adding “there are a variety of options still available, including sanctions on banking, particularly sanctions on equipment and technology for their oil and gas industry.”
“The Iranians,” said Gates, “are in a very bad spot now because of this deception” and dramatic disclosure of the underground nuclear facility, and said that Iran’s still-contested presidential election had exposed “some fairly deep fissures in Iranian society and politics and -- and probably even in the leadership” – adding “And, frankly, this is one of the reasons why I think additional and especially severe economic sanctions could -- could have some real impact.”
On Friday, Obama publicly confronted Iran about a once-secret underground site for refining nuclear fuel and said the results of a previously planned P5+1 (US, Russia, Britain, France, China, and Germany, and Iran the plus one) negotiating session on October 1 would be crucial in determining the next step for United States policy toward the Persian nation.
Gates said that U.S. intelligence officials have “no doubt” that Iran’s once-secret underground fuel site, dramatically revealed by President Obama on Friday, “is an illicit nuclear facility,” adding that “We've been watching the construction of this facility for quite some time. … This is information shared among ourselves, the British, the French, as we've gone along.”
Asked on ABC if the Iranian nuclear program can be stopped with sanctions, Gates seemed to view those as a next step after exhausting diplomatic efforts, saying, "I think that what is critical is persuading the Iranians that — or leading them to the conclusion that their security will be diminished by trying to get nuclear weapons rather than enhanced. And I think that because of the election, we see fissures in Iran that we have not seen before in the 30 years since the revolution. And I think that severe sanctions, if the Iranian — first of all, we — we have created a problem for the Iranians with this disclosure.
“And so the first step is the meeting on Thursday with the P5+1, with the Iranians, to see if they will begin to change their policy in a way that is satisfactory to — to the great powers.
“And then, if that doesn't work, then I think you begin to move in the direction of severe sanctions. And their economic problems are difficult enough that — that I think that severe sanctions would have the potential of — of bringing them change their — their policies.
“I think — you asked me how long do I think we have?
“I would [say] somewhere between one to three years.”
He closed the discussion of Iran on CNN by warning:
“I think we are all sensitive to the possibility of the Iranians trying to run the clock out on us. And -- and so nobody thinks of this as an open-ended process.”