American officials have done a "lousy job" taking Afghan President Hamid Karzai seriously, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress on Wednesday as he sought to diffuse criticism of continued U.S. involvement in a war that has dragged on for a decade.
Gates offered a blunt assessment of Afghanistan and its government as he implored Democrats and Republicans to maintain the U.S. investment in the mission despite congressional calls for steep budget cuts. President Barack Obama is seeking $553 billion for defense in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, plus another $117.8 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan _ amounts likely to face some cuts.
Gates argued that the Pakistani-Afghan border remains the epicenter of terrorism and that attacks against the United States could occur again. He warned that leaving the country precipitously could result in another deadly strike like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"We can't leave this place alone," he told the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
But Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., called the Karzai government the most corrupt in the world and questioned why the U.S. should spend any more than the $450 billion it has invested or suffer the loss of any more American lives.
"The more we look at this, the less justifiable this mission seems to be," Moran said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States must have "some level of legitimate government" to assume control of military operations at both the national and local level.
Gates said the two ministries he has dealt with _ defense and interior _ are highly capable and Afghanistan has been ahead of schedule in recruiting and training candidates for security forces. Poor, developing countries that deliver services outside the capital often are beset with corruption, Gates argued.
He also offered an explanation for Karzai's outbursts and criticisms of the United States.
"I think we have done a lousy job of listening to President Karzai because every issue that has become a public explosion from President Karzai has been an issue that he has talked to American officials about repeatedly in private," Gates said. He cited Karzai's complaints about out-of-control private security companies in his country and increasing numbers of civilian casualities.
"So these issues that have ended up in him having these explosions, these critical comments that he has, in my view, in most instances there is a basis for that," he said.
In Kabul on Wednesday, NATO's top commander apologized for the accidental killing of nine Afghan boys and ordered attack helicopter crews to be briefed again on his directive for preventing civilian deaths. Civilian casualties long have been a source of tension between the U.S.-led international force and Karzai.
The Afghan president condemned the deaths, and said in a statement, "Is this the way to fight terrorism and maintain stability in Afghanistan?"