WASHINGTON — The Pentagon presented a grim portrait of the Afghanistan war Thursday, offering no assurances about how long Americans will be fighting there or how many U.S. combat troops it will take to win.
Defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida will take "a few years," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, with success on a larger scale in the desperately poor country a much longer proposition. He acknowledged that the Taliban has a firm hold on parts of the country President Barack Obama has called vital to U.S. security.
Congress wants answers to what lawmakers described as basic questions to soothe a war-weary American public.
"In the intelligence business, we always used to categorize information in two ways, secrets and mysteries," Gates, a former CIA director, told a Pentagon news conference.
He added: "Mysteries were those where there were too many variables to predict. And I think that how long U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan is in that area."
With 62,000 U.S. troops already in the country, and another 6,000 headed there by the end of the year, Gates suggested there is little appetite in Washington to add many more.
He said his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is free to ask for whatever he needs, but Gates said when the general submits a revised war plan in the coming weeks it will not contain a request to expand the U.S. fighting force.
McChrystal is expected to identify shortfalls that could be filled by U.S. forces, but a formal request would come only later. The White House has made no secret of its skepticism about further troop additions in Afghanistan, and Gates said Thursday he still was worried that too many American forces could turn Afghans against those trying to help them.
Obama has made Afghanistan one of his top foreign policy priorities. But his administration is grappling with refocusing on Afghanistan, which the U.S. invaded in October 2001 to hunt for Osama bin Laden, while disentangling 130,000 American troops from Iraq.
In a report released earlier this week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned the Obama administration that unanswered questions about lingering U.S. involvement in Afghanistan could frustrate the public.
"The administration has raised the stakes by transforming the Afghan war from a limited intervention into a more ambitious and potentially risky counterinsurgency," the Senate report concluded. "These core questions about commitment and sacrifice can be answered only through a rigorous and informed national debate."
Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., cited "risks and rewards associated with our increasing commitment to the war in Afghanistan."
As the fight moves toward its ninth year this fall, Gates said allied forces must show this year that they are turning the tide.
"It's just not possible to predict specific periods of time when you're in a conflict like this, where ... the enemy has a vote and where there are so many variables," Gates said.
Appearing alongside Gates, the nation's second-highest ranking military officer agreed there is no date certain for an exit.
Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Marine Gen. James Cartwright said he is looking for evidence of U.S. and NATO troops increasingly turning security missions over to Afghan forces as a sign of when Americans might ramp down their presence.
"When you start to see that attitude change, then you start to have a sense that things are going to move in a direction that would be towards the end of the violence side of this equation," Cartwright said.
The Senate report also noted the wide-ranging timeline for U.S. troops in the fight cited by unidentified military leaders, policy-makers and outside experts around Washington: anywhere from two years to over a decade.
"None of the civilian officials or military officers interviewed in Afghanistan and elsewhere expected substantial progress in the short term. They talked in terms of years two, five and 10," the report noted.
The varying timelines, in part, may reflect politics.
Capitol Hill has grown wary of approving annual war chests after years of ever-increasing costs for Iraq. Obama has asked Congress for $68 billion next year to fund defense spending in Afghanistan. The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, recently asked for another $2.5 billion in nonmilitary spending, The Washington Post reported this week.
Military officials believe the Afghanistan mission can only succeed if troops are there far longer – anywhere from five years to 12 years.
Cartwright suggested that some changes will be needed "pretty soon."
"The IED fight is pretty lethal," Cartwright said, referring to improvised explosive devices left on roadsides which are now the cause of the majority of U.S. and NATO deaths.
Last month 49 coalition troops died in bomb attacks, a more than six-fold increase from the eight killed in roadside and suicide bomb attacks in July 2008, according to U.S. figures.