Gates blames past lack of troops for Taliban edge

Defense Secretary Robert Gates blamed the Taliban's revival on a past failure to deploy enough troops to Afghanistan and said U.S. forces would not withdraw whatever the result of President Barack Obama's strategy review.

"We are not leaving Afghanistan. This discussion is about next steps forward and the president has some momentous decisions to make," Gates said in a TV program taped at George Washington University on Monday and being aired by CNN on Tuesday.

Obama faces pivotal decisions after the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, presented a grim assessment of the eight-year war.

Eight American soldiers were killed last Saturday when tribal militia stormed two combat outposts in eastern Afghanistan, the worst U.S. loss in more than a year.

The administration is debating whether to send up to 40,000 more troops, or scale back the mission and focus on striking al Qaeda cells, an idea backed by Vice President Joe Biden.

Gates suggested U.S. and allied failure to put more troops into Afghanistan in the past, when then-president George W. Bush shifted resources to invade Iraq, gave the Taliban an edge.

"Because of our inability, and the inability, frankly, of our allies, for putting enough troops into Afghanistan, the Taliban do have the momentum right now, it seems," Gates said.

Complicating the White House discussions are allegations of vote fraud in Afghanistan's August presidential election, mostly aimed at incumbent and provisional winner Hamid Karzai.

Some say if Karzai is declared victor despite the charges it will undermine his government's legitimacy. U.S. officials have cited the fraud allegations as a reason for the policy review.


Afghan election authorities began a recount on Monday, but new rules appeared to make it unlikely Karzai's preliminary win would be overturned and a second round vote take place.

The former deputy head of the U.N. mission in Kabul, U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith -- sacked last week for outspoken views on voting fraud -- said the method chosen to evaluate suspicious ballots was "not acceptable."

The new rules from the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission treat suspicious ballot boxes the same regardless of which candidate received the suspect votes.

Galbraith told Reuters: "It cannot be correct to treat all presidential candidates equally for disqualification of ballots."

"Let's not mince words: there was one candidate who had control of the state apparatus."

A final result from the poll will likely come next week.

Galbraith is close to Richard Holbrooke, Obama's Afghanistan and Pakistan point man. Holbrooke is not considered a Karzai fan and is presumably a key player in the White House talks.

Additional reporting by Peter Graff and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Phil Stewart and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Alan Elsner and Jerry Norton