Levin: Gates to have 'great sway' over Obama on Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is going to have “great sway” over President Barack Obama in figuring out the right U.S. strategy and resources in Afghanistan, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Thursday.

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“As far as I know, he has got great sway [and] impact,” Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “He is in an extraordinarily important position” in the decision on how to proceed next in Afghanistan, Levin added.

Levin said that while the recommendations from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, are very important, the debate has largely been focused on “the commander in the field” and Gates ultimately will have a “major say” in the strategy.

“He has the confidence of the president, he has the confidence of the Congress,” Levin said. “He is in an extraordinarily important position in this decision.”

Gates is the lone holdover from the George W. Bush administration and is held in high regard by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. His voice resonates not only with the civilian officials at the Pentagon, but also with the military.

McChrystal is making his recommendations to Gates, someone in whom “the president has put tremendous responsibility and stock,” Levin said.

It is unclear where Gates stands in the debate over McChrystal’s recommendation to send as many as 40,000 more U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan. The Obama administration is still deliberating its strategy in Afghanistan and is likely several weeks away from making a final decision.

Meanwhile, Levin has pressed his case for beefing up the Afghan security forces instead of sending more U.S. combat troops. Levin also says that U.S. forces have to reach out to low-level Taliban fighters to get them to switch sides by giving them jobs and security, similar to the “Sons of Iraq” efforts, which have been credited for the decline in violence in Iraq.

The senior Democrat is also pressing for a “surge” of equipment to Afghanistan.

“There should be now a major equipment surge,” Levin said. “If there is an announcement about a major equipment shift, I think that makes a difference.”

Senate and House defense authorizers agreed on a provision in the conference report of the fiscal 2010 defense policy bill, which authorizes the transfer of non-excess U.S. military equipment from Iraq to Afghanistan. Levin expressed frustration over the delay in approving the conference report in the Senate, because that provision needs to “take effect immediately.”