By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 14, 2007 - "Getting the next part right" in Iraq is critical to America, and forthcoming steps there must capitalize on opportunities created by the troop surge, project U.S. might and show long-term commitment, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today. During a briefing at the Pentagon with Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gates told reporters that he has worked closely with top military and National Security Council officials to define the United States' upcoming moves in Iraq.
"It has been my view over the last several months that the next steps in Iraq had to address multiple objectives," he said. "They would need to maximize the opportunity created by the surge to achieve our long-term goals of an Iraq able to sustain, govern and defend itself, and be an ally in the war on terror."
Gates voiced confidence in the recommendations Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, outlined earlier this week during congressional hearings on the troop surge and U.S. operations in Iraq. He added that he supports President Bush's decision to consider bringing home an Army combat brigade by Christmas.
"With General Petraeus' recommendations and the president's decisions, we are where I have hoped since January we would be in the fall," he said. Gates added that all of the president's top military commanders and advisors agree with the recommendations that Petraeus proposed and Bush approved.
In the near-term, the United States should take measures to ensure it's perceived as winning the war on terror, the secretary said. "(Those steps have) to avoid even the appearance of American failure or defeat in Iraq," he said.
Gates noted that Islamic extremists were emboldened after they successfully helped defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 1993, only five years after the last Soviet servicemember withdrew from the country, terrorists originating from Afghanistan bombed the World Trade Center in New York City. U.S. failure in Iraq, the secretary said, would hand over an ideological victory to extremists fighting coalition forces today and could encourage future terrorist attacks.
"Should the jihadists be able to claim victory in Iraq over us -- the sole remaining superpower -- it would empower them worldwide far, far more than their victory over the Soviets," he said.
Gates said the next steps in Iraq should send the message to America's friends and foes that U.S. forces "will remain the most significant power there for the long term, ... and that we will remain the dominant force in the region." This signal plays a dual role by reassuring Iraqis that the United States intends to continue acting as a "stabilizing force."
The precise form, troop level and mission of a long-term U.S. security force would be negotiated with Iraqi government leaders, Gates said. But in its role to counter terrorism, guard Iraq's border, and provide support and training to Iraq's security forces, the U.S. force's purpose likely would adhere to the principles outlined by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by James A. Baker and Lee H. Hamilton, he added.
Establishing democracy in Iraq -- a foreign concept to the 4,000-year-old area -- has been slower and more difficult than planners first envisioned, Gates acknowledged. "Part of that has been due to mistakes we have made. Part is due to Iraqi history and culture," he said.
"The challenges in Iraq remain significant," he acknowledged. "The bloodshed -- both Iraqi and American -- is a daily source of grief."
But despite challenges in Iraq, Gates encouraged reconciliation among U.S. lawmakers on America's mission there.
"Here at home, our next steps would need to create the best possible chance for broad, bipartisan support for a sustainable American policy in Iraq that protects long-term American national interests there and in the region," he said.
The secretary said that regardless of how U.S. policy is steered, servicemembers' progress and hard work should be maintained and lauded.
"Whatever we might do (has) to preserve the gains made possible by the service and sacrifices of our men and women in uniform," he said, "and thus reassure them that their service and sacrifice truly has mattered."