Defense Secretary Gates wants to extricate himself and the president from the impending P.R. disaster shaping up around the flailing Kandahar operation set for this Summer Fall.
"I think it's important to remember that Kandahar is not Afghanistan," Gates said in comments that appeared to play down a U.S.-led operation for control of the area, known as the birthplace of the Taliban.
"Kandahar and Helmand are important but they are not the only provinces in Afghanistan that matter in terms of the outcome of this struggle," he said.
From the Pentagon's most recent Afghanistan report to Congress, here's a chart showing how optional Kandahar and Helmand are for the success of the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy being pursued by U.S. and allied forces.
From p. 126 of the Report on Progress Towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan (April 2010), emphasis mine:
8.1: ISAF Strategy
Under the ISAF concept of operations, the main effort is to conduct decisive clearing operations concentrated on the most threatened population in the southern part of the country to establish population security and implement measures that diminish insurgent influence over the people. As described in Figure 23 - ISAF Concept of Operations, the main effort in RC-South, by province, is in Helmand and Kandahar, where efforts are focused on clearing districts most threatened by insurgents.
No reporter should let Secretary Gates, General McChrystal, or President Obama off the hook in the coming months regarding the make-or-break nature of the Kandahar operation for their (poorly) chosen COIN strategy in Afghanistan. As described in the report to Congress, Kandahar/Helmand is the main effort, and everything else is either a "shaping," "supporting," or "economy of force" (read: leftovers) operation. Kandahar/Helmand is the COIN strategy. If ISAF fails there, it fails, period.
Members of Congress considering funding the ongoing Kandahar/Helmand/escalation strategy should read these comments from Secretary Gates with alarm. He's hedging and trying to set expectations because he knows the COIN effort is in serious, "bleeding ulcer" trouble. Congress should save us all a whole lot of trouble and vote against the $33 billion war spending supplemental under consideration. As Daniel Ellsberg says in the most recent Rethink Afghanistan video, this war can be infinitely prolonged, but "winning" through military force is a pipe dream that's killing people.
UPDATE: ISAF and the Pentagon are now comically denying that they ever planned an "offensive" in Kandahar, emphasis mine:
The commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, insisted that there never was a planned offensive. "The media have chosen to use the term offensive," he said. Instead, he said, "we have certainly talked about a military uplift, but there has been no military use of the term offensive."
Sure, the media chose the word "offensive." Specifically, the American Forces Press Service (in a story cross posted on the Pentagon website and the ISAF website!), quoting one Maj. Gen. Nick Carter:
The general stressed that the planning and execution of an offensive in Kandahar are Afghan-led initiatives directed by President Hamid Karzai. The provincial governor is reaching out to his city and district mayors to engage the population and build relationships with the population, he said.
Carter said he expects the offensive to begin in the "next month or two," and that by Ramadan, which begins in August, security improvements will begin to be apparent. It will take some three months before a strong, credible government is formed in Marja, he said, leading him to believe that it could take just as long, if not longer, to sway public support and perception in Kandahar.