WASHINGTON – As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified before the Senate Armed Forces Committee on Tuesday,he laid out plans for the country's use of military force around the world and improving military standards.
The context of defense spending and how to move forward in Afghanistan were the subjects of the most debate.
Gates said the challenge in Afghanistan comes in many forms: political corruption,drug labs and lords,operations by extremists and the lack of cooperation from other nations with troops there,non-governmental organizations,universities,development banks and others trying to help the country.
An “Afghan face” must be in front of every operation,Gates said. “The Afghan people must believe we are there to help them,because if they think we are there for our own purposes then we will go the way of every other foreign army that has been in Afghanistan.”
Despite President Obama rolling back many Bush administration policies,Gates' rhetoric signaled that he was not making any ideology changes for the new commander-in-chief. He hadn't,however,expected to be his own successor as he planned for the transition to a new president.
“As I focused on the wars these past two years,I ended up punting a number of procurement decisions that I believed would be more appropriately handled by my successor and a new administration,” he said. “Well,as luck would have it,I am now the receiver of those punts – and in this game there are no fair catches.”
Gates said the hard economic times will force the Defense Department to make tough choices.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss,R-Ga.,disagreed with the concept.
“There's no better place to stimulate the economy than the Defense Department,” he said,adding that military projects could start immediately.
Under President Bush,the department's budget rose steadily. In 2008,the budget increased more than 8 percent,and in 2009 it rose an additional 7.5 percent.
“I will focus on creating a unified defense strategy that determines our budget priorities,” Gates said. “This is,after all,about more than just dollars: it goes to the heart of our national security.”
The war in Afghanistan played a large role at the hearing,an area of foreign policy that Gates argued was of paramount importance.
Over the past year,the number of troops in the Afghan army has increased from 80,000 to 184,000,Gates reported.
There are 31,000 United States military troops in the country,according to the prepared statement by Committee Chairman Carl Levin,D-Mich.
“Ultimately,a strong Afghan national army and a reasonably honest Afghan police represents an exit ticket for all of us,” Gates said.
Sen. John McCain,R-Ariz.,the committee's ranking member,said that patience is needed to withstand the conflict.
“The American people need to see what's at stake and see that it is going to take a long time to secure America's national security risks,” he said.
Gates echoed the outlook,saying that the conflict would be “long and difficult,” and laid out his strategic objectives for the war: “an Afghan people who do not provide a safe haven for al-Qaida,reject the rule of the Taliban and support the legitimate government that they elected and in which they have a stake.”
For more than two hours,Gates fielded questions ranging from Afghanistan to Africa,from Pakistan to Iraq and from defense contractors to the Guantanamo Bay facility.
Chambliss,in particular,expressed concern with releasing prisoners from the prison camp. Obama has pledged to close the camp,but it's uncertain where some of the most dangerous prisoners would go.
Several senators,including Sen. Claire McCaskill,D-Mo.,inquired about the role of defense contractors in Afghanistan and efforts to increase supervision over the private companies.
Gates replied that the department is “trying to take the lessons learned over the last couple years and transfer that to Afghanistan.”