By Jim Garamone, American Forces Press Service (Part 2 of 4)
WASHINGTON, June 23, 2011 – The whole time Robert M. Gates has served as defense secretary, the nation has been at war on two fronts.
When Gates came on board in December 2006, his focus initially was on Iraq, where sectarian violence threatened to rip the country apart. He then shifted his attention to Afghanistan, where the Taliban regained the initiative while the United States was preoccupied with Iraq.
Gates was the man President George W. Bush tapped to retrieve the situation in Iraq. The secretary was familiar with the situation on the ground. As a member of the Iraq Study Group, he had traveled in the country and spoke with U.S. and Iraqi leaders. He had met with the troops doing the heavy lifting and taking the casualties in Baghdad, Tikrit and Anbar province.
The day after Gates took office, he boarded an aircraft for Baghdad and consulted with U.S. and Iraqi leaders. It was the first of 13 visits to Iraq as defense secretary. “I had three priorities when I arrived: … Iraq, Iraq and Iraq,” the secretary said during a recent interview with American Forces Press Service.
As the surge troops arrived in Iraq, violent incidents rose to 500 per week, and American casualties climbed along with them.
The secretary had to convince Congress to stay the course and that it was essential to American security that people not perceive the United States had lost in Iraq. In one instance, he cancelled a trip to Latin America to be available to talk to U.S. senators who were wavering in their support for Iraq.
Despite initial doubt from some, the surge worked. At its height, there were more than 166,000 American service members in Iraq. By the summer of 2007, leading indicators in Iraq showed progress: the number of “no-go” neighborhoods was declining and violence was going down. The “Anbar Awakening” formed the Sons of Iraq security force and gave the Iraqi government breathing room to establish control and provide much needed governance and economic growth.