WASHINGTON -- Amid tension between the military and President Barack Obama over military action in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told a gathering of Army officers Monday that the Pentagon would follow any strategy that Obama orders.
"Speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability," Gates told the Association of the U.S. Army in Washington.
Gates' comments seemed to include a rebuke to Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Last week, McChrystal appealed for more troops during a speech before the Institute of International and Strategic Studies, calling current White House consideration of proposals that would not increase U.S. troop strenght in Afghanistan "short-sighted."
On Monday, Gates said that military and civilian advisors should provide "our best advice to the president candidly -- but privately."
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U.S. military officers, both in Washington and Afghanistan, recently have expressed growing frustration with the administration and its prolonged debate over policy in Afghanistan. The administration is now reconsidering its strategy just months after it named McChrystal as its commander there, calling him the best military mind the United States has to fight a counterinsurgency war. McChrystal has asked for as many as 45,000 troops, but the White House said it needs weeks to consider that request, with some suggesting the United States may redefine its goals there all together. In an assessment submitted to the Pentagon, McChrystal that found the effort there could fail without more troops.
The administration has said that the Afghan presidential election, which was sullied by charges of ballot stuffing by incumbent Hamid Karzai, demands that it reconsider whether it wants to spend more money backing that government and helping create a 134,000-strong army to serve Karzai.
Gates used the annual military conference to defend the president.
"I believe that the decisions that the president will make for the next stage of the Afghanistan campaign will be among the most important of his presidency. So it is important that we take our time do all we can to get this right," Gates said.
Also Monday, Gen. George Casey, the Army's chief of staff, said at a meeting with reporters that sending more troops could make it harder to give soldiers two years off for every year they serve in combat by 2012, as the Army has planned. Currently, a soldier is supposed to get one year off for every year of combat he or she serves.
There are 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. So far this year, 239 have been killed. At least 16 troops have been killed this month, including eight killed Sunday in an ambush in Nuristan province.
Earlier this year, the president ordered another 17,700 troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan to prepare for the Aug. 20 presidential election.
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)
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