KABUL, Afghanistan – Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Afghanistan today with plans to assure officials and American troops there that the United States is committed to winning the war despite plans to begin pulling forces out in 2011.
“We are in this thing to win,” Gates told reporters while traveling to Kabul, where he plans to meet privately with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and later with troops bearing the brunt of combat.
The secretary’s trip to Afghanistan is the first by a Cabinet member since President Barack Obama’s announcement last week that he will deploy 30,000 more troops with the intention of starting to bring them home in July 2011.
As Gates took his message abroad, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the overall military commander in Afghanistan, will try today to convince a skeptical Congress that more troops are needed to fight a growing enemy insurgency. More than 920 U.S. troops have died in the 8-year-old war.
McChrystal’s appearance before the House Armed Services Committee starts the first of three days of congressional Afghanistan hearings that are expected to draw hard questions from both anti-war Democrats and conservative Republicans about Obama’s stated intention to begin paring down the U.S. role in July 2011.
Gates and other administration officials have described the 2011 date as just the beginning, with the process likely to take at least two or three years to complete.
Gates, in a midair briefing en route to Kabul, said he believes the U.S. mistakenly abandoned Afghanistan in 1989 as it fought the Soviets and understands Afghan concerns that they will be left alone against the Taliban.
Gates said he will try to assure Karzai and his advisers “that we are not going to repeat the situation in 1989” and that “we intend to be their partner for a long time to come.”
He also said he will press Karzai and Afghanistan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak on efforts to recruit and train more Afghan soldiers and police officers. McChrystal has set the goal of building the Afghan security force to 400,000 by 2013. There are roughly 94,000 Afghan police officers and 97,000 soldiers today.
Gates’ trip came as the Pentagon issued deployment orders for more than 16,000 troops to Afghanistan, the first major installment of the 30,000 reinforcements expected to be in place by next fall.