WASHINGTON, April 22, 2008 – Succeeding in Iraq is critical to prevent a repeat of the strategic mistake in post-Soviet Afghanistan that ultimately led up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., yesterday evening. Video

And although a war with Iran would be “disastrous” to the United States, there’s no choice but to keep the military option on the table in light of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he said.

The way U.S. civilian and military leaders confront these and other pressing challenges will affect “how, where and when you may be sent into battle in the years ahead,” Gates told the cadets.

He noted the very different public perceptions about two conflicts in which the cadets are likely to serve. The war in Afghanistan is viewed largely as “a war of necessity — striking back at the staging ground of the perpetrators of Sept. 11,” he said. “The Iraq campaign, while justified in my view, is seen differently by many people.”

Gates said he recently told Congress that the United States was attacked on Sept. 11 and is at war today in Afghanistan “in no small measure because we mistakenly turned our backs on Afghanistan after the Soviet troops left in the late 1980s.”

“We made a strategic mistake in the end game of that war,” he said. “If we get the end game wrong in Iraq, I told the Congress, the consequences will be far worse.”

Gates conceded that sustaining the fight in Iraq “is a hard sell,” particularly in light of its high financial and human costs, but is necessary to avoid “an even uglier fight or even greater danger to our country in the future.”

Afghanistan looms as a reminder that those risks aren’t just hypothetical, he said.

Meanwhile, rogue nations like Iran that support terrorism destabilize the Middle East and Southwest Asia, Gates said. He said he believes Iran is “hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.”

“Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need and, in fact, I believe it would be disastrous on a number of levels,” Gates said. “But the military option must be kept on the table given the destabilizing policies of the regime and the risks inherent in a future Iranian nuclear threat — either directly or through proliferation.”

These, as well as the threat posed by violent jihadist networks, bring new perspective to the doctrine of preemption that’s been criticized in many corners, he said.

He posed questions with which the United States and its military leaders must grapple:

— “With the possibility of the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and the willingness of terrorists to use them without warning, can we wait to respond until after a catastrophic attack is either imminent or has already occurred?

— “Given the importance of public opinion and public support, how does one justify military action to prevent something that might happen tomorrow or several years down the road?

— “While ‘never fight unless you have to’ does not preclude preemption, after our experience with flawed information regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, how high must the threshold of confidence in our intelligence have to be to justify — at home and abroad — a preemptive or preventive war?”

Other seemingly clear-cut axioms extolled by military giants like Gens. Gen. George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower aren’t quite so clear-cut in light of the challenges the United States faces, Gates said.

How, for example, does the country grapple with the principle, “never fight alone,” when its allies aren’t willing to step up as required? Gates asked the cadets.

“What do you do when, as is the case today with NATO in Afghanistan, some of your allies don’t want to fight? Or they impose caveats on where, when and how their forces may be used? Or their defense budgets are too small as a share of national wealth to provide a substantial contribution?”

Gates expressed frustration that NATO has more than 2 million men and women in arms, yet struggles to sustain fewer than 30,000 non-U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the United States is “forced to scrounge, hat in hand, for a handful of helicopters” from NATO.

Gates pointed to one more Marshall-Eisenhower axiom the United States and its military must confront: “Never fight for long.”

Six-and-a-half years since the Sept. 11 attacks and five years into the Iraq war, the United States is involved in the second-longest war since the Revolution, Gates noted.

“The current campaign has gone on longer, has been more difficult, than anyone expected or prepared for at the start,” he said. “And so we’ve had to scramble to position ourselves for success over the long haul, which I believe we are doing.”

Gates called a troop drawdown in Iraq “inevitable over time,” calling the ongoing debate in Washington “largely about pacing.”

But ultimately, he said, the kind of enemies the United States faces today won’t allow it to remain at peace. The so-called “Long War” is likely to be “many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity,” he said.

This challenge “cannot be wished away or put on a timetable,” Gates said. “There are no exit strategies.”

But how American leaders, both military and civilian, grapple with these issues and dilemmas will have far-reaching consequences, including the kinds of wars the military will be called to fight, Gates told the cadets.

He urged them to draw on lessons learned at West Point and to demonstrate the agility, resourcefulness, imagination and integrity the country needs of its military officers as they confront these challenges.

All, Gates noted, enrolled at the academy knowing they were likely to be called into combat. All had the credentials to choose something easier or safer or better paying than military service. Instead, he said, they chose the mantle of duty, honor and country.

Gates expressed thanks for that decision, from the American people and from himself personally.

“It is undoubtedly politically incorrect for me to say that I feel personally responsible for each and every one of you, as if you were my own sons and daughters,” he said. “And so my only prayer is that you service with honor and return home safely.”

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