Speaking somberly about the end of combat operations in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Monday that now is not the time for "premature victory parades."
In a speech to the American Legion's national convention in Milwaukee, Wis., Gates eschewed any triumphant declaration that the mission in Iraq had been accomplished.
The uneasy peace of Baghdad, Gates said, had come at great cost, with 4,427 U.S. service members killed and another 34,265 wounded. And the mission, he said, was incomplete. Iraq is still without a coalition government months after its election and political compromise remains elusive.
"Sectarian tensions remain a fact of life, al Qaeda in Iraq is beaten, but not gone," Gates said. "This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulations."
Gates drew a number of parallels between Iraq and Afghanistan, beginning with the skepticism that the Iraq surge was met with in 2007.
He acknowledged the U.S. public's "impatience about the pace of progress" this year in Afghanistan. But he noted that the full complement of additional troops ordered to Afghanistan by President Barack Obama is only now arriving.
In an attempt to counter that impatience, Gates made an unusually specific reference to the number of militants eliminated by U.S. forces and said 350 Taliban leaders had been killed or captured in the last three months.
The Pentagon usually avoids focusing on enemy body counts, believing them an imperfect, or even inaccurate, measure of progress.
Soon after Gates took office, the U.S. began a dramatic troop buildup in Iraq. At that time, few believed the strategy would work and, Gates said, "there were plenty of reasons for doubts."
But a retooled strategy in Iraq, helped curb the rising violence there, and the same is possible in Afghanistan, he said.
"Success there is not inevitable," Gates said of Afghanistan. "But with the right strategy and a willingness to see it through, it is possible."
The U.S. will formally end its combat mission in Iraq on Wednesday, when Vice President Joe Biden will preside over a change of command, and change of mission ceremony in Baghdad.
Gates said the current strategy in Afghanistan was aimed at building the self-reliance the Afghans will need to govern. Beginning a draw down from the current troop levels in Afghanistan, Gates said, would encourage that self-reliance.
Republicans have criticized that proposed drawdown, arguing it has undercut the effectiveness of the surge forces, allowing the Taliban to tell its followers that they can wait out the U.S. military.
Echoing recent comments by Gen. James Conway, the Marine Commandant, Gates said it will be a mistake for the Taliban to believe the U.S. will not be involved in intense fighting next year. And he said the continuing robust American presence next year would break the militant's morale and erode their willingness to resist the Afghan government.
"If the Taliban really believe that America is heading for the exits next summer in large numbers, they'll be very deeply disappointed and surprised to see us still very much in the fight," he said.