It took Defense Secretary Robert Gates just five days on the job and a whirlwind trip to Iraq to get to work mapping out a new course for the war.
Robert Gates (AP Photo)
Though he declined to detail the broad new strategy he is finalizing with his military commanders, he offered a few hints about some of its possible components during his three days in Iraq.
In the larger context, he spoke optimistically about Iraq’s political leaders and their commitment to taking over their own security and dealing with the militias that have brought the country to the brink of civil war.
"I think that they do have some concrete plans in mind" to deal with militias, Gates said Friday, "and putting flesh on those bones" is what Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will be discussing with the Iraqis in the coming days.
Gates returned to Washington Friday night, then headed to Camp David, Md., to join Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley and others Saturday in briefing President Bush.
One of the biggest concerns expressed by members of Congress and other critics is that American troops will remain mired in Iraq unless the Iraqis are threatened with an imminent withdrawal of U.S. forces and forced to meet specific benchmarks.
But Gates’ comments suggested some progress in the political discussions with the Iraqis that could lead to an agreement on how they will proceed.
Based on his conversations with Iraq’s leaders, Gates said: "I think these are people who take their responsibilities seriously. I think they are eager to take the lead. They understand they have to take responsibility for their own country, that it has taken longer to get to this point."
On the more specific proposals, Gates mentioned one unit’s success at training Iraqi brigades by boosting the size of the U.S. teams embedded in each Iraqi unit. He talked at length about the continued need for U.S. forces to support the Iraqis as they build their security forces, signaling the unlikeliness of a rapid drawdown.
He issued a stern warning to Iran and Syria, saying the U.S. has an enduring commitment to the Gulf region while they are having a negative impact on Iraq’s security.
And he predicted American troops will be providing logistical help for "a long time," and didn’t rule out a short-term increase in troop levels when several soldiers told him they thought it would help.
Gates declined to say whether he plans to recommend such an increase. The Los Angeles Times reported in its Saturday editions that Casey and other leading U.S. military commanders in Iraq have decided to recommend a "surge" of fresh troops.
As Gates stood in front of the headquarters of Camp Liberty on the edge of Baghdad at the end of the week, he acknowledged that the new path he is presenting to Bush will not be easy.
"Will the way forward probably be difficult? Probably," Gates said. "But I believe, based on what I’ve heard and seen both from the American commanders and from the Iraqis, that things are moving in a positive direction. But it’s going to be a long haul."
Gates spent the three days before the Christmas holidays helicoptering back and forth across Baghdad to meet with top leaders, including Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and to get briefings from the military on training programs, special forces operations and countermeasures for roadside bombs.
He skirted festive Christmas decorations in the American-run offices in this Muslim nation. And he posed for photographs with troops, usually slipping them newly minted blue coins emblazoned with his name and his new title.
Gates offered that his limited experience on the job may give him "a perspective that those who have been intensely involved with it for the past several years don’t have."
He also revealed a more easygoing style than his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, who resigned a day after Democrats swept control of the House and Senate in an election fueled by the American public’s growing dissatisfaction with the war.
Gates donned jeans for the flight to Iraq, and spent up to an hour each morning peppering lower-level soldiers with questions, drawing out their advice on the situation on the ground and what they believed was working.