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Obama defence chief's rebuke on Afghan war

Military advisers should keep private their misgivings about conflict, warns Gates

Tensions over the Obama administration over the handling of the war in Afghanistan bubbled over yesterday when the Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, admonished advisers to the President for advertising their points of view in public. They should counsel him "candidly but privately," he said bluntly.

Mr Gates, who was addressing an army convention in Washington, mentioned no one by name but his remarks were interpreted as a rebuke to the top US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who rehearsed his preference for a beefing up of the military effort in a speech to a London think-tank last week, after giving a lengthy interview to the current affairs show 60 Minutes.

Mr Gates said: "I believe that the decisions that the President will make for the next stage of the Afghanistan campaign will be among the most important of his presidency.

"It is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this right. And in this process, it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations – civilians and military alike – provide our best advice to the President candidly but privately."

There seems to be little hiding a rift between Mr Obama's advisers on what should be his next steps regarding the Afghan war which is increasingly losing the support of the public as well as some in his own party. It is thought that a report that General McChrystal submitted last month included a call for 40,000 more troops and trainers, to come on top of the deployment of 20,000 personnel that Mr Obama authorised last spring.

But the Vice President, Joe Biden, wants a shift in tactics which would see the US abandon its all-out effort to beat the Taliban and protect the Afghan people and instead focus on rooting out al-Qa'ida cells. Mr Obama will have at least two strategy sessions with his advisers this week. He will also discuss the war with congressional leaders in the White House today.

That the White House may be displeased with the public utterances of General McChrystal was also evident in comments made by the national security adviser, James Jones on Sunday. A retired general, he seemed to send a message to General McChrystal that his would be only one of many opinions to be weighed by Mr Obama. "Ideally, it's better for military advice to come up through the chain of command," General Jones said.

"I think that [General] McChrystal and the others in the chain of command will present the President with not just one option ... but a range of options that the President can consider. Troops are a portion of the answer but not the total answer." In his speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last week, General McChrystal acknowledged that security in Afghanistan was not improving.

"We need to reverse the current trends, and time does matter," he said. "Waiting does not prolong a favourable outcome. This effort will not remain winnable indefinitely."