In an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, Gates said the focus on Iraq by the previous administration of President George W. Bush meant the operation in Afghanistan has been limited.
“The reality is, we were fighting a holding action,” Gates said of situation under Bush, whom he also served as defense secretary.
“We were very deeply engaged in Iraq,” Gates said, later adding: “We were too stretched to do more. And I think we did not have the kind of comprehensive strategy that … we have now.”
Setting an exit strategy for Afghanistan would be a mistake, but the United States also will closely monitor developments to ensure its strategy is achieving desired results, Gates said.
Obama is under increasing pressure from congressional Republicans who favor sending more troops, as desired by commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal, while many of the president’s fellow Democrats are expressing resistance.
Gates said McChrystal “found a situation in Afghanistan that is more serious than … we had thought and that he had thought before going out there.”
Asked why the Obama administration has yet to decide on McChrystal’s assessment that more troops will be necessary to defeat insurgents and protect the local population, Gates said it would take more time to properly analyze the situation.
"I think we are in the middle of a review," Gates told CNN Chief National Correspondent John King, adding : “Once we're confident we have the strategy right, then - then we'll address the question of additional resources.”
Gates also noted that any additional combat troops for Afghanistan "really probably could not begin to flow" until January 2010.
He disagreed with setting a clear exit strategy for Afghanistan.
"[T]he notion of - of timelines and exit strategies and so on, frankly, I think would all be a - a strategic mistake," Gates said. "The reality is - failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States.
“[The] Taliban and Al Qaeda, as far as they're concerned, defeated one superpower, [the Soviet Union],” he continued. “For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think, would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, Al Qaeda recruitment, operations, fundraising, and so on. I think it would be a huge setback for the United States.”
Gates said the process should be defining a strategy “that we think can be successful, and then to pursue it and pursue it with confidence and resolution." At the same time, Gates suggested that the administration was not moving toward an open-ended, indefinite commitment to having a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
"I think that we are being very careful to look at this as we go along," Gates said. "We've put out metrics so that we can measure whether or not we're making progress. And if we're not making progress, then we're prepared to adjust our strategy, just as we're looking at whether adjustments are needed right now."