By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 5, 2009 - President Barack Obama's decisions on the next phase of the Afghan war will be among the most important of his presidency, said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who vowed to faithfully execute his orders. Gates' remarks today come amid ongoing discussion among top national security officials about the way forward in Afghanistan, a debate said to be rife with varied proposals ranging from troop increases to a narrower, scaled-down approach.
"I believe the decisions that the president will make for the next stage of the Afghanistan campaign will be among the most important of his presidency, so it is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this right," he told an audience at the annual conference here of the Association of the U.S. Army.
Top national security advisors convened at the White House last week for the first in a series of high-level talks expected over the coming weeks to focus on the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The discussions are unfolding some six months after a new strategy articulated the need to refocus the mission on thwarting al-Qaida and its allies.
Gates pledged to carry out Obama's impending policy decision on Afghanistan, where the defense secretary said the security situation is on a "worrisome trajectory." Violence levels in the country are up 60 percent from last year, he noted.
"Speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability," he said.
In a thinly veiled reference to the high level of exposure the deliberations have received, Gates emphasized that officials involved in the talks should hold their views close.
"In this process, it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations -- civilians and military alike -- provide our best advice to the president candidly, but privately," he said.
But as the national security apparatus sets its sights on the future of Afghanistan, Gates said, he would remain responsive to urgent needs there, particularly on countering the deadly improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that still cause the most casualties in the war.
"IEDs remain the No. 1 cause of casualties in Afghanistan, and let there be no doubt that as long as our troops are in harm's way, the Department of Defense will do everything it can to destroy these IED networks and protect those heroes in the fight," he said, eliciting applause from the crowd.
To help in reducing the IED threat, Gates has ordered expert personnel and additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment to Afghanistan, including the most advanced drones and the MC-12, a new Air Force aircraft that provides near-real time intelligence. Also, the first wave of an influx of vehicles designed to protect troops from deadly bombs arrived in Afghanistan last week. The mine-resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicles -- known as M-ATVs -- are similar to conventional MRAP vehicles, with both touting a V-shaped hull to deflect roadside bombs.
But the M-ATV provides troops a smaller and more maneuverable vehicle that can travel off-road and navigate Afghanistan's difficult, mountainous terrain, Marine Corps Systems Command officials said.
"The first MRAPs designed specifically for Afghanistan's rugged terrain, the M-ATVs, were delivered to theater last week, only three months after the initial contracts were awarded," Gates said today. "And in the next year, we will field thousands of these lifesaving vehicles."