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Afghanistan war decision: how Robert Gates thinks

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Gates is a good example of the oft-cited Washington truism: The ones who talk, don't know; the ones who don't talk, do know.

But Gates, who declined a request for a Monitor interview, has talked some about Afghanistan. In the past, he has expressed concern about the size of the American "footprint" – worried that too many forces could look a lot like an occupation. Yet he has also said that the long-term needs of Afghanistan – good governance, economic opportunity, and a strong indigenous force – won't magically appear without the help of the US military stabilizing the country. In recent days, he's dodged questions about just what the noises in his head are saying. Asked by a reporter on a plane with him to Asia late last month "where he was" on the troop surge idea, Gates talked about the legitimacy of the Afghan government. Two days later, asked the same question after a meeting of NATO defense ministers, Gates wriggled: "I was in a listening mode."

It's not that he's slippery, just self-disciplined, say those who know him.

"He's been inside the Beltway his entire life and he knows how to play the cards and when to play them, and he will only telegraph to the decider," says one retired senior officer who served under Gates. "Rummy had his circle of good buddies who were easy to identify. Don't know that about Gates."

The Defense chief is not given to snap decisions, recalls Rob McKee, who served with Gates on the corporate board of Parker Drilling Company before he was named Defense secretary. But he says Gates does act decisively after a genuine effort to get as many facts as possible. And, adds Mr. McKee, who served as an adviser to the Iraqi oil ministry between 2003 and 2004, Gates – a registered Republican – takes pains never to show his politics.

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