Gates Says Pentagon Will Try to Stop Prioritizing Iraq Over Afghanistan

The shift in strategy could allow more troops to be sent to Afghanistan, but it comes with big risks.

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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates signaled a significant shift in the Pentagon's priorities in the Middle East that could end a five-year-long deployment and funding strategy that emphasizes military needs in Iraq over those in Afghanistan.

For months, defense officials have used a simple catchphrase to describe the military's approach to both, coined by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen while speaking on Capitol Hill last year: In Afghanistan, we do what we can; in Iraq, we do what we must.

During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, however, Gates amended what has been de facto defense policy. "With positive developments in Iraq, the strategic flexibility provided by ongoing troop reductions there, and the prospect of further reductions next year, I think it is possible in the months to come to do militarily what we must in both countries."

It is a striking statement and a measure of the progress U.S. officials believe they have made in Iraq. But it is one that will come with significant challenges—challenges that may prove difficult to balance, U.S. military officials say.

Gen. James Cartright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned the same committee this morning that Iranian influence in Iraq remains a sizable concern for the U.S. military. That's particularly true since the surge has ended and the Pentagon is preparing for further drawdowns in the country, he added. Various Shiite militias, U.S. military officials point out, may try to take advantage of fewer U.S. forces in the country by stepping up strikes.

In that event, U.S. commanders on the ground in Baghdad might need reinforcements—a realistic possibility. To that end, Gates cautioned that his worry is "that the great progress our troops and the Iraqis have made has the potential to override a measure of caution born of uncertainty. Our military commanders do not yet believe our gains [in Iraq] are necessarily enduring—and they believe that there are still many challenges and the potential for reversals in the future."

The problem is that Afghanistan needs them as well, and U.S. forces are still stretched thin as GIs are diverted from Iraq in order to send them to Afghanistan. Three U.S. brigades are scheduled to head there—including one in November and another in January—to shore up forces in a country that has been rocked by increasing violence and a sharply rising casualty toll for U.S. soldiers.

What's more, the greatest concern among defense officials today is that the fate of Afghanistan depends on another ostensible U.S. ally: Pakistan. "If you asked me today where the greatest threat to the homeland lies," said Gates, "I'd tell you it's western Pakistan." Those are the country's ungoverned tribal areas that continue to offer safe haven to terrorists with, U.S. military officials add, what amounts to the tacit and occasionally explicit help of Pakistani officials and intelligence operatives.

What to do there will be the source of increasing debate among defense officials and on Capitol Hill in the months to come. Gates said more U.S. economic aid to Pakistan would "significantly advance our strategic interests," adding that the country is in "desperate economic straits." Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, bristled at this assessment, calling it the "ultimate irony" that Pakistan may get greater aid, particularly in the wake of reports that Pakistani troops have fired upon Afghan and American soldiers. "We might be paying them to shoot our helicopters," she said.

McCaskill was referring to stepped-up cross-border operations by U.S. troops into Pakistan—incursions that Pakistani leadership has said in no uncertain terms that it would not tolerate. U.S. military officials privately point out that the Pakistani leadership cannot publicly support these operations. Gates echoed this assessment as well. "I don't think they can do that," he said. But, he added that the Pakistani Army has been active in the tribal areas. And "regardless of the effectiveness of their operations, their mere presence and willingness to fight" are a help to U.S. forces.