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Gates: U.S., allies making 'slow, tough progress' in Afghan war

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
  • Gates says debate in the administration over strategy in Afghanistan was "instructive"
  • He says once Obama made up his mind, "everybody at the senior level ... was on board"
  • Reports of deep divisions in the administration are the focus of a new book

Washington (CNN) -- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Thursday he believes the United States and its allies are making "slow, tough progress" in Afghanistan.

"I believe that actually this is one of those instances where the closer you are to the front line, in some respects, the better it looks."

Gates made the comments at a news conference with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen said that there signs of progress already in the strategy that included adding an additional 30,000 US troops.

Gates said he also believes that most Afghans support Operation Enduring Freedom, and very few want to see a return to Taliban rule.

Gates said even though the war is now in it's tenth year -- the longest war in U.S. history -- it's only been about a year and a half that the Department of Defense has been able to give the war the attention and resources needed to succeed.

"I would say, since the beginning of 2009 with the president's first decision to add another 21,000 troops, and then his decision in January -- in December -- to add another 30,000, we have actually got the resources in Afghanistan to partner with the Afghans and have some prospect of dealing with a resurgent Taliban," he said.

Gates, as well as Mullen, were asked to explain reports of deep divisions in the Obama administration over Afghanistan strategy, which are detailed in the new Bob Woodward book, "Obama's War."

"A year after the Afghan strategy review, can you both say without reservation that the strategy that emerged is coherent and sound enough to justify the expenditure of American lives and money?" a reporter asked.

"Yes. I wouldn't sign the deployment orders if I didn't believe that," Gates replied.

"I feel that way as well," Mullen added.

Gates said that any division that may have existed when President Barack Obama was formulating the current strategy in Afghanistan ended when the president made up his mind what he would do.

"Once the president made his decisions last December, everybody at the senior level in the administration was on board, in terms of going forward with the strategy he approved and executing it to the best of our ability. And that continues to be the case," Gates said.

Gates offered that he found the internal debate to be helpful.

"Presidents are always well-served when there is a vigorous and spirited debate over important issues." Gates said. "I felt that the debate with respect to Afghanistan was instructive. I learned things in the course of that debate. My positions changed, or were adjusted -- or I adjusted them at various points."

The defense secretary does not see the next strategy review, due in December, to be as dramatic as last year's.

"I have not gotten a sense from my conversations with people that any basic decisions or basic... changes are likely to occur. I suspect that we will find some areas where we can make some adjustments and tweaks," he said.

A senior defense official said that any major adjustments would not make sense. He said the new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, just recently took over, and when Petraeus assumed command he made clear that he was still committed to the counterinsurgency strategy in place, and that the full complement of troops were just getting on the ground to carry it out. The idea that Petraeus would scrap that plan three months later was never even seriously considered, the official added.

The question also came up again about when Gates, the only secretary of defense to serve presidents of two different political parties, will leave the Pentagon.

He reiterated his desire to leave in 2011, but when asked if he would leave before or after July 2011, when Obama has promised to begin the process of withdrawing troops, Gates said he would not say, but he did offer, "I've made up my mind."

Gates said he wants to leave with enough time left in the president's term to find a suitable replacement and avoid a confirmation process in the 2012 election year.

Gates' desire to leave is no secret. He even had a countdown clock to the end of his service on display in his office when he served under former President George W. Bush. The clock disappeared when he was asked to stay by President Obama.

Pentagon Correspondent Chris Lawrence contributed to this report.