Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has made clear his desire to leave office next year, said he has "made up my mind'' about when to offer his resignation. But he wouldn't say when, and he declined to say whether he intends to be in office next July for a critical strategic review of the war in Afghanistan.
Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon Thursday, Gates firmly disputed a picture drawn by journalist Bob Woodward of the Obama administration in bitter disarray over Afghan war strategy.
And he snapped at a reporter who asked if he was confident that President Obama had devised a war strategy that would work.
"I wouldn't sign the deployment orders if I wasn't,'' Gates said, referring to the tens of thousands of American troops he has ordered to Afghanistan to carry out the president's strategy.
He noted that when he took office Dec. 18, 2006, there had been 187 American troops killed in Afghanistan
. This week, the number of American war dead reached 1,170, a grim cost that seems etched in the deepening lines on Gates' face.
He acknowledged there had been "vigorous and spirited'' debates during the three months it took last fall for Obama to decide on a "surge'' of 30,000 troops and a narrowing of the military mission in Afghanistan.
"My view is once the president made his decision last December, everybody in senior positions were on board,'' he said.
He was asked specifically about reports of bitter feuding between White House civilians and senior military officers about Afghan war strategy, detailed in Woodward's new book, "Obama's Wars." Gates, who has served under eight presidents in his long career at the CIA, the White House and the Pentagon, said: "Relations among senior officials and the military are as harmonious as any in my experience.''
As an example of the benefit of the debates over Afghanistan, Gates said he had been skeptical of any significant increase in troop strength, believing that crowding more American troops into the country would cause more Afghans to think of the U.S. as an invader and occupier.
But he was persuaded by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who argued that it wasn't the number of troops, but what they were doing, that was important, Gates said. The Russians were viewed as a brutal occupying force because they acted that way, killing more than 1 million Afghans and driving 5 million out of the country, Gates said. But polls show a majority of Afghans want U.S forces to stay, he said.
At the Pentagon press conference I asked Gates if he thought books like Woodward's, which have exposed the internal deliberations of the Bush and Obama administrations in often embarrassing detail, are helpful in letting readers understand and appreciate the complexity of issues that senior officials handle. Or would he prefer to work in secrecy?
After a long pause, Gates said with a chuckle, "I guess I'd better answer that with a 'no comment.'''
Gates expressed satisfaction that the United States, after nine years of war, has finally gotten the "inputs'' right in Afghanistan -- the right number of troops and civilians, the right strategy, the right equipment.
But he suggested that he will have retired before the full results are known.
In an interview last month with Foreign Policy magazine, Gates, who will turn 67 on Saturday, said he intended to quit his post
well before the 2012 elections, in order to give Obama time to search for a replacement, and to allow for Senate confirmation hearings well before the 2012 campaign season heats up.
He reiterated those concerns again Thursday, but remained coy about the precise timing. "Any thinking that you might stay on'' through the president's first term? a reporter asked.
"Not in my thinking,'' Gates shot back with a grin.