The South Asia Channel

Gates's Afghanistan visit: The latest salvo in the battle for hearts and minds at home

This week's visit by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Afghanistan was the latest move in a campaign aimed at managing the expectations of an American public divided and skeptical about the overall war effort.  

Those who paid attention to this trip will see it for what it's worth -- part of an overall effort to shape how the American public views the war. What's up for grabs here is how we actually define victory or success in Afghanistan.  It's not simply about gauging U.S. progress in Afghanistan -- it's actually defining what progress actually means.  

You can start by looking at Gates's objectives for his trip, of which there were several. The first was to check in on the preparations for the U.S.-led offensive planned for Kandahar later this year. (Yes, more than 8 years into the war, we have not managed to secure the country's second largest city.) Second, Gates wanted to hear the "ground truth" from service members and ask whether things like equipment for surge troops are arriving in time for the war. Gates also said that he wanted to check on the status of 1,000 all-terrain, mine-resistant vehicles are now doing in Afghanistan. In this day and age of secure government video conferencing across time zones, the fact that Gates showed up on the ground could be seen by skeptics as a sign that Gates does not trust he's been hearing from commanders on the ground. Recall that earlier this year the White House was reportedly frustrated about the slow pace of troop deployments to Afghanistan.

It's also worth reviewing what Gates said during his trip, and noting that he made himself available to the press multiple times during this trip, demonstrating another key goal of his visit: Steeling the American public for what's likely to be an increase in body bags and wounded warriors coming home later this spring and summer.

He warned of "some very hard fighting and very hard days ahead," echoing a message that top U.S. military commanders have been sending since President Obama announced the administration's second troop surge last December.

Gates has also sent a message delivered by U.S. military officials -- earlier this month General Stanley McChrystal set a new tone, saying the United States had set the stage for real progress in 2010 -- which stands in sharp contrast to the negative tone set for all of 2009. Gates highlighted that the military operations have gained some momentum against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, though he tempered his talk of by saying it was still too early to tell (only one-fifth of the new "surge" troops have arrived in country at this stage, after all).

He also sounded a more skeptical tone about the possibilities for senior-level Taliban reconciliation at this stage, while at the same time sending a stern message to Iran, whose president is visiting Afghanistan this week. (It is interesting that in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States has spent more than $1 trillion, U.S. officials still need to show up unannounced for security reasons and Iran's leaders are able visit with advance fanfare).

By itself, the Gates visit doesn't tell us much about the war effort, except that visits by senior officials such as these are aimed at garnering news coverage and shaping public perceptions back home. As U.S. forces prepare for more operations in southern Afghanistan, Gates is sending the message that more tough fighting is ahead, with a new hint that perhaps the effort is just about to turn a corner. How much that fits with reality in Afghanistan remains to be seen. 

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