MILWAUKEE — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned on Tuesday against “premature victory parades or self-congratulations” as American combat operations in Iraq drew officially to a close, and at the same time said that the success of United States forces in Afghanistan was only “possible,” not inevitable.
In remarks to the American Legion that foreshadowed an address by President Obama on Tuesday night to mark the Aug. 31 date for the withdrawal of all United States combat troops from Iraq, Mr. Gates sounded a restrained, sober note about the state of America’s two wars.
In Iraq, he said, the most recent elections have yet to result in a coalition government, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is beaten but not gone, and sectarian tensions remain. He said the 50,000 United States troops still in Iraq would continue to work with Iraqi security forces, who only last week faced a flurry of coordinated insurgent attacks across the country that killed at least 51 people.
“I am not saying that all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq,” Mr. Gates, who is one of Mr. Obama’s most influential advisers, told the legion.
In Afghanistan, he said, the Taliban are “a cruel and ruthless adversary, and are not going quietly.” Their leadership, he said, has ordered a campaign of intimidation against Afghan civilians and is singling out women for brutal attacks.
“I know there is a good deal of concern and impatience about the pace of progress since the new strategy was announced last December,” Mr. Gates said, referring to Mr. Obama’s decision to send to Afghanistan 30,000 additional United States troops, who have finished arriving only this month. Total American forces in Afghanistan now number nearly 100,000.
But in an attempt to draw a parallel between the current fragile stability of Iraq and what might be possible in Afghanistan, Mr. Gates said that the intensifying combat and rising casualties in Afghanistan were in many ways reminiscent of the early months of the surge of United States forces ordered in Iraq by President George W. Bush in 2007, when American troops were taking the highest losses of the war.
“Three and a half years ago very few believed the surge could take us to where we are today in Iraq, and there were plenty of reasons for doubts,” said Mr. Gates, who helped make the surge decision as Mr. Bush’s defense secretary at the time. But “back then, this country’s civilian and military leadership chose the path we believed had the best chance of achieving our national security objectives, as we are doing in Afghanistan today.”
He added: “Success there is not inevitable. But with the right strategy and the willingness to see it through, it is possible. And it is worth the fight.”
Despite his cautious tone on Iraq, Mr. Gates cited what he called dramatic security gains. He said that violence levels this year remained at their lowest level since the beginning of the war in 2003, that American forces have not had to conduct an airstrike in six months and that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia had been largely cut off “from its masters abroad.”
But he said the gains had been purchased “at a terrible cost:” More than 4,400 American service members killed, 34,265 Americans wounded or injured and untold losses and trauma endured by the Iraqis themselves.
In Afghanistan, Mr. Gates promised that the United States would take a hard line against corruption in the Afghan government. He also echoed Mr. Obama and senior military commanders by saying that the president’s deadline for the start of withdrawals of United States forces from Afghanistan next July would be a gradual beginning, not a massive departure.
“If the Taliban really believe that America is heading for the exits next summer in large numbers, they’ll be deeply disappointed and surprised to find us still very much in the fight,” he said.