Sunday, January 11, 2009

Pentagon Says Gates, Obama Agree on Key Defense Issues

News in Balance

News in Balance:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 11, 2009 -- As a new administration prepares to take the reins of national security, President-elect Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates share common ground on some pivotal defense issues, the Pentagon says.

Both have expressed desire to drawdown U.S. forces from Iraq and increase troop levels in Afghanistan, strengthen America’s alliance with NATO, close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and end the policy of “stop-loss.”

With regard to U.S. force levels in Iraq, a newly enacted agreement between Washington and Baghdad sets the legal framework for a timeline of withdrawal. The status-of-forces agreement, which became effective Jan. 1, stipulates that American combat forces pull back from cities and villages to major bases by June 30.

The agreement also calls for all American troops to vacate Iraq by the last day of 2011.

This date exceeds Obama’s campaign pledge to leave Iraq within 16 months by about a year and a half. But the incoming commander in chief and his vice president-elect voiced support for the agreement on their official Web site:

The site also describes the incoming administration’s plans for U.S. force posturing in the region: “Barack Obama and Joe Biden will responsibly end the war in Iraq so that we can renew our military strength [and] dedicate more resources to the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.”

Gates, too, has endorsed an overall increase of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which is expected to total about 25,000 additional troops over the next 12 to 18 months, according to officials. Some 32,000 American forces are deployed there.

Another point of emerging consensus between the president-elect and defense secretary is the need to push for stronger commitment from NATO allies in Afghanistan.

During a news conference last month in the Afghan city of Kandahar, the secretary said that some NATO allies believe they and their Afghan counterparts are holding their own in some areas of fighting.

“But I think everybody would agree that holding your own isn't good enough,” Gates said. The Obama administration, meanwhile, said it “will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan [and] press our allies in NATO to do the same.”

Gates, who replaced Donald H. Rumsfeld as President George W. Bush’s defense secretary and whom the president-elect has retained, expressed interest in closing the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, early in his tenure.

The secretary has requested a plan for shutting down the detention center in preparation for a possible request by Obama, Pentagon Spokesman Geoff Morrell said last month.

“The president-elect has made it perfectly clear throughout the course of the campaign that he wishes to address this issue early on in his administration,” Morrell said in a Dec. 18 news conference. “So the secretary wants to be prepared to assist him in trying to figure out a solution to this thorny problem.”

Gates and Obama also appear unified in their disliking of the military’s stop-loss policy, which requires troops to involuntarily remain in uniform and extend their service contracts.

The secretary said he has attempted to minimize use of stop-loss since his appointment in late 2006. In a news conference last month, Gates said he presses military officials on a monthly basis to restrict the policy’s implementation.

The Army’s concern is that without stop-loss, units may become deprived of experienced soldiers and senior enlisted leaders, he said. But Gates previously has stated he finds it troubling that military members who expect to leave service are prevented from doing so.

“I hope that fairly soon, and especially with the drawdowns in Iraq, that we will begin to see a further decrease in stop-loss,” he said Dec. 2.

The president-elect, taking a more hard-line approach, vowed on his Web site to undo the policy.

“Obama and Biden will end the stop-loss policy and establish predictability in deployments so that active duty and reserves know what they can and must expect,” the site states.
(From a report by John J. Kruzel, American Forces Press Service.)

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