Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed thousands of Legionnaires at the 92nd National Convention, telling them that today's Afghanistan strategy will avoid previous errors. Photo by James V. Carroll

Gates: The 'right strategy in Afghanistan'

The United States learned from its mistakes the first time it became involved in Afghanistan more than two decades ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday. Addressing the 92nd American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee, he told thousands of Legionnaires that today's Afghanistan strategy is geared to avoid previous errors.

"I would remind everyone that this country's leaders, myself included, made the mistake 20 years ago of abandoning Afghanistan to chaos, of believing its power-vacuum did not and should not concern us, and that we could eliminate threats from a distance at little cost to ourselves," he told Legionnaires. "As events have shown in New York, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, London, Madrid, Amman, Lahore, Jakarta and around the world - we were wrong.

"(Gen. David) Petraeus believes, I believe, and the president believes, that we now have the right strategy in Afghanistan, a strategy that represents our best chance of achieving goals essential to the safety of the United States: delivering a strategic defeat to Al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates by rolling back the Taliban from their strongholds, building Afghan capacity to secure their own territory, and in so doing, denying a safe haven to terrorists that would attack our country once again. That is our objective and our strategy - and the only possible justification for the risks and sacrifices we ask of our troops."

Gates touched on criticisms that the process is occurring altogether too slowly in Afghanistan. "It is important to remember, however, that we are only just now reaching the full complement of surge forces ordered by the president," he said. "The Taliban are a cruel and ruthless adversary, and are not going quietly. Their leadership has ordered a brutal campaign of intimidation against Afghan civilians, singling out women for barbaric attacks. But the enemy is paying a price for its crimes, as more than 350 Taliban commanders have been killed or captured just in the past three months. These efforts will only accelerate as our military offensive rolls back the enemy from their strongholds and secures key population centers.

"Going forward, Afghans must accept responsibility for the future of their country. We're making slow but steady headway on that front, with about 85 percent of the Afghan National Army now partnered with ISAF forces in the field - training together, planning together and fighting together. General Petraeus has worked with President Karzai to develop a plan for locally recruited forces that will be accountable to the central government, but will also give local communities the means to defend themselves. We are committed to enforcing a hard line against the corruption that exploits the Afghan people and saps their support for their elected government - and that includes making sure American tax dollars and other assistance are not being misused."

But thinking the U.S. exit plan won't be handled cautiously is a mistake, Gates said. "We are not turning off the lights next July. As in Iraq, our drawdown will be gradual and conditions-based, accompanied by a build-up of our military assistance and civilian-development efforts," he said. "If the Taliban really believes that America is heading for the exits next summer in large numbers, they'll be deeply disappointed and surprised to find us still very much in the fight."

Gates pointed to similarities between Afghanistan and Iraq as a point of optimism. "The intensifying combat and rising casualties is, in many ways, reminiscent of the early months of the Iraq surge, when our troops were taking the highest losses of the war," he said. "Much of the coverage and commentary is similar as well. Three and a half years ago, very few believed the surge could take us to where we are today in Iraq, and there were plenty of reasons for doubts. Back then, this country's civilian and military leadership chose the path we believed had the best chance of achieving our national security objectives - as we are doing in Afghanistan today. Success there is not inevitable. But with the right strategy and the willingness to see it through, it is possible. And it is worth the fight."

As Operation Iraqi Freedom transitions into Operation New Dawn on Wednesday, Gates said that while the responsibility shifts from the United States to the Iraqi people, a U.S. presence will not be absent.

"This is the moment both our nations have long worked and hoped for, a moment made possible by the dramatic security gains of the last three and a half years," he said. "I am not saying that all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq. The most recent elections have yet to result in a coalition government. Sectarian tensions remain a fact of life. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is beaten, but not gone. This is not a time for premature victory parades or self congratulation, even as we reflect with pride on what our troops and their Iraqi partners have accomplished. We still have a job to do and responsibilities there. Even with the end of the formal combat mission, the U.S. military will continue to support the Iraqi army and police, help to develop Iraq's navy and air force, and assist with counter-terrorism operations.

"As that mission moves forward, we must never forget that the opportunities in front of all Iraqis - and especially the opportunity for political freedom - have been purchased at a terrible cost: in the losses and trauma endured by the Iraqi people, in the blood, sweat and tears of American men and women in uniform. Today, at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 4,427 American servicemembers have died in Iraq - 3,502 of them killed in action, 34,265 have been wounded or injured. The courage of these men and women, their determination, their sacrifice - and that of their families - along with the service and sacrifice of so many others in uniform, have made this day, this transition, possible. We must never forget."