U.S. Afghan war review unlikely to prompt big changes

WASHINGTON Thu Sep 23, 2010 5:21pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's defense chief and top military officer on Wednesday played down chances for any major changes in Afghan war strategy at a White House review in December, saying they saw "tweaks" instead.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, both expressed confidence in the strategy unveiled by Obama a year ago, which included a 30,000 troop "surge."

"I have not gotten a sense from my conversations with people that any basic decisions or basic changes are likely to occur," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon. "I suspect that we will find some areas where we can make some adjustments and tweaks to try and enhance what's going on now."

Mullen, sitting beside Gates at the media event, chimed in, saying: "I think you have it exactly right."

"There certainly could be some adjustments, but we think the strategy is sound."

Another senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition that he not be named, said it was correct to assume the December review would be more of a check-up than the re-think that characterized last year's White House review.

The comments came as a new book by veteran Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward laid bare episodes of bitter infighting within the Obama administration over his strategy to turn around the unpopular, nine-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Gates pushed back against Woodward's portrayals of a deeply divided national security team. He acknowledged a "spirited" debate last year before Obama decided on a course for the war.

"But I will tell you that, once the president made his decision, this team came together and has been working together to execute this strategy," he said.

STEPPING DOWN

Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration who has become one of Obama's most trusted advisers, restated his intention to step down before the 2012 presidential election year. He declined to say whether he would be around for next July's planned start of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but added: "I've made up my mind."

Obama announced the July 2011 deadline at the same time he ordered the surge last year, in an effort to convey a sense of urgency to Afghans about the need to ramp up their security forces for an eventual handover.

Critics say that has backfired, feeding into Taliban propaganda that the United States and its allies would soon leave and that they'll regain control.

This year has already been the deadliest for foreign forces since the war began, and Mullen said it was too soon to predict what next year would look like.

"It's very difficult to predict, you know, where we're going to be a year from now," Mullen said. "I do not in any way underestimate the degree of difficulty or the challenge."

General David Petraeus told Reuters on Wednesday he had completed a draft plan to start thinning NATO forces in parts of Afghanistan next year, which would be refined in the coming months -- particularly ahead of a NATO summit in Lisbon in November.

Gates was optimistic overall, saying the strategy was yielding progress, however slowly. "I believe that actually this is one of those instances where the closer you are to the front line, in some respects, the better it looks," he said.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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