WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that President Barack Obama’s advisers should keep their guidance private, in effect admonishing the top U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan for publicly advocating a troop-intensive military approach at a time when the White House is considering an overhaul of its strategy.
The comment by Gates came a day after a top White House official, national security adviser James Jones, said that military commanders should convey their advice through the chain of command, a sharp reaction to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s call in a speech in London last week for a strategy aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan.
The exchanges pointed to the growing disarray in the Obama administration’s attempt to forge a new policy on Afghanistan and underscored the wide differences among top officials over the correct approach after eight years of failed efforts.
The furor seemed aimed at McChrystal, a special forces commander tapped by Obama to take charge of the Afghanistan effort in June to institute a sweeping counterinsurgency strategy. Obama and McChrystal spoke Friday aboard Air Force One on the tarmac in Copenhagen, and White House officials did not detail what the two talked about.
Still, Pentagon officials dismissed suggestions Monday that the 55-year-old commander was in any professional jeopardy. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said it would be “absurd” to think McChrystal had lost favor or standing with the administration.
Gates’ comments, in an address before an Association of the U.S. Army meeting, came in the midst of what the Pentagon chief called a “hyperpartisan” situation over strategy and troop numbers, as many Republicans and even some leading Democrats demand the president comply with commanders’ troop requests.
The deaths of eight U.S. service members in a firefight over the weekend fueled the political fight, with at least one prominent Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, arguing that the failure to send more troops would lead to additional deaths.
As the situation deteriorates and U.S. public opinion turns against the war, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will meet today with congressional leaders, and the president is scheduled to chair a strategy session Wednesday with top advisers.
Gates, demanding room for the administration’s deliberations, said the resulting decisions would be among the most important of Obama’s presidency.
The White House on Monday promised to stand by its commitments in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think we have the option to leave,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “That’s quite clear.”