WASHINGTON — US military officers and civilians advising President Barack Obama on Afghanistan should keep their views private, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday, in an apparent rebuke to the commander there who has openly declared his stance on war strategy.
Referring to pivotal White House discussions on the war, Gates said: "It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike, provide our best advice to the president, candidly but privately."
Though Gates did not mention General Stanley McChrystal by name, his remark appeared aimed at the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan who has made his views on strategy known in media interviews and a high-profile speech in London last week.
Gates's comment, delivered in an address to the Association of the US Army, echoed criticism on Sunday from retired general James Jones, Obama's national security adviser.
Jones told CNN on Sunday: "It is better for military advice to come up through the chain of command."
McChrystal last week in London dismissed an alternative to the current manpower-intensive strategy under discussion at the White House, saying such an approach using a smaller ground force was "short-sighted."
And asked by Newsweek about proposals to freeze or even reduce the 65,000-strong US force, the general said: "You can't hope to contain the fire by letting just half the building burn."
Gates' press secretary said the defense secretary's remarks were not singling out the commander but were meant as a broad admonishment to all those involved.
"He (McChrystal) is not the only voice that's been out there," Geoff Morrell told AFP.
The fact that Gates urged more discretion among both civilians and military officers in his speech "makes clear that it's an issue on his mind," he said.
McChrystal was summoned to a brief meeting with Obama in Copenhagen on Friday aboard the president's plane.
Gates also defended the pace of deliberations at the White House, despite criticism from Republicans in Congress demanding the president act quickly on a request for more troops from McChrystal.
Saying Obama faced some of the most weighty decisions of his presidency, Gates said that "it is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this right."
In an apparent reference to tensions between senior officers and the White House, Gates said the military would carry out the president's decisions without hesitation.
"And speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability," he said.
Gates, whose opinion could prove crucial in Obama's final decision about strategy and troops, has yet to say publicly if he supports deploying more American forces to the NATO-led mission.
The debate over war strategy has divided along mainly partisan lines, with Republicans urging Obama to follow the commander's advice and skeptics on the left invoking the Vietnam fiasco and accusing military leaders of trying to shape public opinion.
Senator John McCain, former White House Republican candidate, on Monday blasted Obama's national security adviser over his comments that the Taliban was not poised to return to power in Afghanistan.
"Anybody who believes that you can hand over the country or significant parts of the country to the Taliban and not have to worry about Al-Qaeda returning and working with them and becoming a base for attacks against the United States of America has no understanding of the region or the nature of the enemy," McCain told Fox Business Network.
Jones insisted Sunday that coalition forces in Afghanistan are "robust," and said the solution to regaining the upper hand there is "much more complex" than just deploying tens of thousands additional US troops.
US Army Chief of Staff General George Casey on Monday meanwhile declined to discuss details of possible reinforcements for Afghanistan but told reporters that he would offer his views "directly to the president and to do it privately."
Although the Army has been stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Casey said it had made changes and was better placed to handle troop requests than it was two years ago.
Obama has refused to quickly approve a request for a major troop build-up in Afghanistan, insisting first on a full vetting of the current strategy.
The White House's war council was taking place against the background of rising violence.
Eight US soldiers were killed over the weekend in northeastern Afghanistan when their remote outposts were overrun by Taliban militants, one of the bloodiest days for American forces in eight years of war.
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