WASHINGTON (AP) - Afghanistan is America's "greatest military challenge" and coordination of the fight against the insurgency has been "less than stellar," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress Tuesday.
In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said it will take a long and difficult fight to rout militants and help develop a nation that rejects the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban and backs its own elected government.
"There is little doubt that our greatest military challenge right now is Afghanistan," Gates said.
Having recently underwent an operation to repair a damaged tendon in his left arm, Gates spoke with his arm in a sling, his coat half on.
And in the other war involving the United States, he said that although violence has remained low in Iraq, "there is still the potential for setbacks - and there may be hard days ahead for our troops."
Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee respectively, said they shared with Gates his concern about the unstable conditions in Afghanistan.
"This is a long, hard slog we're in in Afghanistan," McCain said, borrowing the phrase used frequently by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to describe the war in Iraq.
"It is complex," McCain added. "It is challenging. And I don't see frankly an Anbar wakening - a game changing event - in Afghanistan, such as we were able to see in Iraq."
Security gains made in Iraq's Anbar province are often seen as a turning point in the Iraq war.
Gates repeated the oft-heard assessment by field commanders that: "As in Iraq, there is no purely military solution in Afghanistan."
But, he added, "it is also clear that we have not had enough troops to provide a baseline level of security in some of the most dangerous areas - a vacuum that increasingly has been filled by the Taliban."
Gates said although more than 40 countries and hundreds of organizations are involved in Afghanistan: "Coordination of these international efforts has been less than stellar, and too often the whole of these activities has added up to less than the sum of the parts."
Congress is eager to hear from Gates on how the Obama administration plans to salvage the war in Afghanistan and hold a relative peace in Iraq - all the while reducing the stress on a force stretched thin by years of combat.
Lawmakers, set to question Gates on Tuesday, also want to hear details on the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison, with some members of Congress concerned that their state might become the next location to house the nation's most dangerous terrorist suspects.
"There are a lot of questions as to what victory and the redeployment out of Iraq means," as well as plans to bolster forces in Afghanistan, said Rep. John McHugh of New York, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
President Barack Obama has vowed to shift military resources away from Iraq and move them toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he says is the central front in the struggle against terrorism and extremism. In a plan initiated during the Bush administration and endorsed by Obama, the Pentagon is planning to double the 34,000 contingent of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
But expectations in the troubled region may have to be tempered as top military advisers focus on showing even small security gains and development progress quickly.
"That's clearly the message I'm getting is, `what are the near-term goals going to be?' " Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said when asked about Obama's agenda for Afghanistan.
While lawmakers mostly support the plan to send more troops, several Democrats have expressed the need for a clearer strategy.
Without an idea of when the commitment would end, "we tend to end up staying in different places and not necessarily resolving problems in a way that fits our national interest," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a Senate Armed Services Committee member.
Gates, the only Republican Cabinet member asked by Obama to stay on, oversaw the same buildup of military forces in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 that Obama opposed. Gates also at one point urged caution against setting a firm timeline for troop withdrawals as Obama campaigned on the promise to bring U.S. forces home within 16 months.
But in recent months, the two are believed to have found much common ground, including Obama's desire to step up diplomatic efforts
Last week, in a meeting with Gates and other national security advisers, Obama reiterated his plans to execute a "responsible military drawdown from Iraq," according to a White House statement.
There was no mention in the statement of the 16-month deadline Obama frequently cited while campaigning for president. A current U.S.-Iraq agreement calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities by the end of June, with all troops gone by 2012.
Also in his first week in office, Obama ordered the eventual closure of Guantanamo Bay prison. With many of the details yet to be worked out, lawmakers are wondering where the detainees will go and how they will be tried. Mostly, members of Congress want to know if they'll be consulted before the administration makes any decisions.
"These perplexing questions confounded the previous administration and will also test the new administration, but our duty calls us to set policies which keep America safe and conform to American values," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Another issue likely to arise at Tuesday's hearing is defense spending and whether Gates expects the Pentagon budget to decline considering Obama's increased focus on domestic spending.
The Obama administration is not expected to complete its review of the defense budget until this spring. Meanwhile, Gates has already estimated that the Pentagon needs another $70 billion in war costs to continue operations through September.
Associated Press reporter Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)