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Gates urges military to focus on Iraq, not future wars

by Staff Writers
Colorado Springs, Colorado (AFP) May 13, 2008
The US military must concentrate on the war in Iraq despite concerns about the stress on the force and its readiness for future wars, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday.

"Morale is high, as is recruiting and retention -- particularly among units either in or just returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," Gates said in a speech here to the conservative Heritage Foundation.

As for the possibility of stretched US forces being confronted with a war elsewhere, Gates said: "There is a risk, but it is a prudent and manageable one."

Gates' comments come as high-ranking military officers and members of Congress have openly-expressed alarm over the repeated deployments of US ground forces, as well growing US vulnerability in the event of a new conflict.

"I have noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called 'next-war-itis' -- the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict," he said.

"It is true that we would be hard-pressed to launch a major conventional ground operation elsewhere in the world at this time -- but where would we sensibly do that?"

"The United States has ample and untapped combat power in our naval and air forces, with the capacity to defeat any, repeat any adversary who committed an act of aggression -- whether in the Persian Gulf, on the Korean Peninsula, or in the Straits of Taiwan," he said.

The US military also is more likely to face insurgencies like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, than conflicts between states, he insisted.

Gates said the Pentagon's weapons procurement programs should be adapted to the requirements of counter-insurgency warfare, which remain the top priority.

"I believe that any major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that ... are most likely to actually engage America's military in the coming decades," he said.

Gates also responded to top military officials who have followed the lead of Army Chief of Staff, General George Casey, in warning about the stress on the force after five years of war in Iraq and a long conflict in Afghanistan.

"The risk of overextending the army is real. But I believe the risk is far greater -- to that institution, as well as to our country -- if we were to fail in Iraq," he said.

The defense chief recalled that US ground forces will grow by more than 90,000 troops over the next five years, and the number of soldiers in Iraq "will decline over time. The debate taking place is mostly over the pacing."

About 158,000 US troops are currently deployed in Iraq. That number is supposed to fall to about 140,000 by the end of July, but deeper cuts in force levels are not currently planned.

General David Petraeus, the top US general in Iraq, has recommended that draw-downs be suspended for at least 45 days in July, arguing that progress in reducing levels of violence is "fragile and reversible."

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