Washington (AFP) May 15, 2009
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates describes his job sending young soldiers off to war as a "painful thing" in a television interview to be broadcast on Sunday.
"The truth of the matter is, being secretary of war in a time of war is a very painful thing," Gates told the CBS network's "60 Minutes" program, which released excerpts of the interview.
"How can you like a job when you go to Walter Reed and you know you sent those young men and women in harm's way?" he asked, referring to the hospital in the US capital that treats many wounded troops.
"Every single person in combat today I sent there and I never forget that for a second. I don't enjoy my job."
Gates, appointed by former president George W. Bush in 2006 and reappointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, is presiding over a major troop buildup in Afghanistan with the US force due to reach up to 68,000 by the fall, up from about 31,000 in December.
Explaining why he agreed to stay in the post through two successive administrations, Gates said he felt a sense of obligation to the troops.
"Because it's my duty and I do it almost exclusively for these young men and women in uniform out there," Gates said. "Whatever I can do to help them, the rest is all fluff as far as I'm concerned."
Gates, a former CIA director, has at times scolded the Pentagon bureaucracy and lawmakers in Congress for focusing on major weapons systems from the Cold War-era instead of the immediate needs of soldiers fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Comparing the two presidents he has served as head of the Pentagon, Gates told CBS that Bush was "committed, questioning and eager to make a decision and move on."
As for Obama, Gates said the new president was "deliberative, decisive and calm."
The program was filmed mostly during Gates's visit to Afghanistan this month. After his return, Gates made the surprise announcement that he had sacked the commander of US and NATO forces there, saying it was time for "new thinking" in the fight against a growing insurgency.
Gates said it was too soon to say when US troops might be able to withdraw, but he said it would hinge in part on progress in expanding and training Afghan security forces.
"What it would take is the Afghan army growing and doing its job well. It would take the effectiveness of our own strategy and our own forces. It would take bringing better governance to the country," he said.
"It would take a lot of different things to have a finite time when we can say, 'We're out of here.'"
Asked to define the shortest exit date for a pullout, Gates said: "You want certitude where there is no certainty. This is a war."
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