In an interview with The Seattle Times, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates shares his views on the Afghanistan war policies of presidents past and present — and gives a different take on the U.S. troop-withdrawal timeline than he did in his 2014 memoir.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he argued against President Obama’s Afghanistan war strategy that set dates for the drawdown of U.S. troops. He supports a decision by President Donald Trump to end such timelines.
In an interview with The Seattle Times, Gates said the policy ‘basically told the Taliban how long they had to wait. I think it was a big mistake.’ He said that a decision by President Donald Trump to deploy more troops in an open-ended engagement could eventually prompt the Taliban to negotiate.
Gates’ comments offer a sharply different take than he expressed just two years ago in his 2014 memoir, “Duty.” That book offers an often harsh assessment of Obama but a resolute defense of the timeline policy that he helped to carry out as he sent troops off to war.
In the book, Gates noted that Obama was much criticized by conservatives for disclosing that the Afghanistan surge that began in 2009 would end in 2011 and that combat troops would leave in 2014. But “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions,” Gates wrote.
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Gates also writes that the policy “finally forced a narrowing of our objectives to those obtainable in that time frame. I was convinced that we could dramatically weaken the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan army during that period — and if not, then we probably never could.”
Asked about the difference between the book’s account and his remarks to The Seattle Times, Gates said the book reflected his public policy statements while leading the Pentagon. “I think you defend things in public that you may disagree with in private,” Gates said.
Washington state home
Gates spoke with The Seattle Times in two telephone interviews from his Skagit Valley home in advance of a Feb. 5 “Unique Lives & Experiences” talk he will give at McCaw Hall. Gates is a native of Kansas, but his wife, Rebecca, was born in Washington state, and Gates says he is drawn to the state by the climate, the people and “the benefit of being as far as you can get in the continental United States from Washington, D.C.”
As a wartime defense secretary from 2006 to 2011, Gates had the rare experience of holding the top civilian Pentagon post under both a Republican president, George W. Bush, and Democrat Obama.
Under both presidents, Gates had the difficult duty of sending service members off to war. In his memoir, he wrote of weeping nightly as he wrote letters to the families of the deceased, and of the emotional toll of going to cemeteries, and to hospitals to visit the wounded.
“This was the real face of war,” he wrote. “… I would do my duty, I would do everything I could for us to win in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I knew the real cost. And that knowledge changed me.”
In Afghanistan, he supported a surge in troops under the Obama administration to help bolster the war effort. He found Obama unwilling to back such an increase without also setting a half-decade limit on combat-troop deployments.
“That was the decision he was going to make, take it or leave it, and I took it,” Gates told The Seattle Times. “My hope was that over that five-year period we would make enough headway that it would turn out OK.”
Under the Trump Administration, the war against the Taliban continues to be a long, difficult fight with no end in sight, and a more recent threat has emerged as the Islamic State group (ISIS) takes hold there.
Gates says he is encouraged that U.S. troops are no longer trying to rebuild the country, and have a narrower security mission, He is a “huge admirer” of Defense Secretary James Mattis, the retired Marine general who grew up in Richland, Washington, and who is now leading the Pentagon.
As for the current commander-in-chief, Gates’ views appear to have evolved. In a September 2016 opinion piece assessing Trump in The Wall Street Journal, Gates wrote that “a thin-skinned, temperamental, shoot-from-the-hip and lip, uninformed commander-in-chief is too great a risk for America.”
He later met with Trump, and recommended former Exxon chief executive Rex Tillerson for his current job as secretary of state. Then in a May appearance on CBS’ Face The Nation, Gates said that “broadly philosophically” he agreed with the president’s disruptive approach to government agencies that have gotten fat, sloppy and inefficient.
In his interview with The Seattle Times, Gates said he could do without President Donald Trump’s tweets, but offered support not only for the president’s Afghanistan policy but other foreign-policy efforts, such as taking a hard line on North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.
But Gates said it is not surprising that the nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un, thinks nuclear weapons are a key to survival. To get him to change that position, U.S. policymakers could consider new initiatives such as offering North Korea a peace agreement and diplomatic recognition should Kim agree to stop the nuclear weapons program.
Gates still spends about half the time on the road, including visits to Washington, D.C. In the nation’s capital, he is dismayed by the inability to forge bipartisan approaches to problem solving.
“Anytime you do something on a straight party-line vote, it’s at risk when the next party wins the election,” Gates said.
The Times is among the sponsors of the “Unique Lives & Experiences” series.