By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
May 22, 2008 - U.S. strategic objectives "are within reach" in Afghanistan and Iraq, but a lack of patience could doom those prospects, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last night. Gates spoke to the second Special Operations Forces International Conference at Tampa, Fla., the home of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Afghanistan and Iraq are the most important battlefields in the fight today, the secretary said, and his priority has been "getting us to a point where our strategic objectives are within reach in those two countries."
America's best opportunity to discredit and deflate the extremist ideology is in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gates said.
"Just as the hollowness of communism was laid bare by the collapse of the Soviet Union, so too would success in those countries strike a decisive blow against the ideological underpinnings of extremist movements," he said.
While not an easy task, it is not impossible, but it will take time, the secretary said. "In congressional testimony a few weeks back, I noted that we are now seeing what the end game in Iraq looks like, with our forces drawing down over time in a series of very complex battlefield rearrangements that slowly cede more responsibility for day-to-day security operations to the Iraqis," he said. "It is a slow process – slower than many would have wished, including myself. But it is necessary if we are to get the end game right."
Experience has shown that patience is necessary, he said.
"Earlier in the war, we tried to turn over provinces and areas to Iraqis before they were ready -- based on overly rosy predictions that didn't necessarily line up with reality," Gates said. "It was a set-up for failure, and in the end a setback for progress."
The reality is that al-Qaida is a cancer "always looking to metastasize and regenerate," Gates said. Iranian-backed Shiite "special groups" and armed militias still undermine the rule of law in Iraq. The Iraqi government still has a lot to learn about how to deliver basic services and security to its people, he said.
"I fear that frustration over slow progress and dismay over sacrifices already made may result in decisions that are gratifying in the short term but very costly to us in the long term," Gates said. "We are at war in Afghanistan today because of mistakes we made -- I, among others, made -- in the end game of the anti-Soviet war there in the late 1980s. If we get the end game wrong in Iraq, I predict the consequences will be significantly worse."
The best force against a shadowy terrorist enemy is a group of men and women called "the silent professionals," the secretary said. Special operators understand the fight and know they are engaged in "prolonged, messy engagements where tactical success does not necessarily yield strategic success; where cultural knowledge and language skills often mean a great deal more than raw fire power; where victory ultimately is not measured by how well we do the job but how well we can train and empower other nations to defend themselves," he said.
The number of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan will gradually decline, Gates said, but that doesn't mean the special operations missions in those countries will end.
"Even as our regular troops reduce their presence and are replaced by Iraqis, special operations force levels will remain fairly constant and be the connective tissue of the overall mission," he said. "They will be in Iraq and Afghanistan for an extended period of time -- as a force to hunt and kill terrorists, and also as a force to help train Iraqis and Afghans."
At its heart, the fight against extremists also must include eliminating local and popular support for sectarian militias and terrorists by bringing economic development and by bringing people into the political process, Gates said.
"In that respect, Iraq has been a crucible for learning what we have to do elsewhere to destroy terrorist networks while simultaneously promoting development and good governance – to reduce the risk of attack while also altering the human landscape so that extremists cannot gain a foothold in the first place," he said.
In this effort, the special operations mission is leaking into American conventional forces, he said.
"Many of these are skills and tasks used to be the province of special operators, but are now a core mission for the regular forces as a whole," he said. "One of the things we are trying to do in the U.S. military is better integrate and reconcile those roles and missions."
The special operations conference attracted attendees from more than 70 nations.
"The United States has special operators in more than 60 countries today, in an arc that sweeps from Mindanao to Mosul and beyond," the secretary said. "Working alongside partners from many of the nations represented tonight, they are carrying out their duties with honor and courage under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
"Across the Middle East and across the globe," he continued, "special operators under many flags will continue their mission: to go where others cannot or will not go, to partner with and train our friends to defend themselves, and to hunt down terrorists relentlessly and without reservation."
Gates thanked the special operations personnel for their service and noted their sacrifices.
"These are challenging times for our military and for our nation," he said. "We are counting on you to take on the assignments, to accept the great burden of fighting the war on terror for as long as it takes to win.
"Rangers, Green Berets, SEALs, members of Delta Force, and Marine and Air Force commandos, along with all their comrades-in-arms from across the globe, will continue to inspire in the hearts of our countrymen a deep sense of pride and patriotism -- just as they inspire in the hearts of our enemies an abiding sense of fear and unease," he said. "For as long as our special operators are out there, those who wish to do our nations harm will never rest easy."