Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the American Legion convo in Milwaukee that challenges remain in Iraq despite tomorrow's change in military status.
“Tomorrow, Operation Iraqi Freedom will officially become Operation New Dawn, a change that recognizes that Iraqis have assumed full responsibility for their own security,” Gates said, according to prepared remarks. The remarks came in advance of President Obama's Oval Office speech tonight marking the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.
Gates said while violence is down in Iraq, challenges remain.
“We still have a job to do and responsibilities there,” Gates said. “Even with the end of the formal combat mission, the U.S. military will continue to support the Iraqi army and police, help to develop Iraq’s navy and air force, and assist with counterterrorism operations.”
Gates said the opportunities before Iraq “have been purchased at a terrible cost,” both “in the losses and trauma endured by the Iraqi people, and in the blood, sweat, and tears of American men and women in uniform.”
Gates said that so far the war has claimed 4,427 American service members' lives, of which 3,502 were killed in action; 34,268 have been injured or wounded.
“The courage of these men and women, their determination, their sacrifice, and that of their families, along with the service and sacrifice of so many others in uniform, have made this day, this transition, possible,” Gates said. “We must never forget.”
Gates also addressed the war in Afghanistan, saying that “going forward, Afghans must accept responsibility for the future of their country” and that America and Afghanistan are “making slow but steady headway on that front.”
Gates stressed the importance of “beginning a responsible transition to Afghan control next summer” but said as Obama “has frequently noted, we are not turning off the lights next July.”
“If the Taliban really believe that America is heading for the exits next summer in large numbers, they will be deeply disappointed and surprised to find us very much in the fight,” Gates said.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, at the same convention, criticized those who opposed the surge strategy he said has made the transition possible. The Ohio Republican also called for the president to clearly explain the goals of the new mission.
“Some leaders who opposed, criticized, and fought tooth-and-nail to stop the surge strategy now proudly claim credit for the results,” Boehner told several hundred American Legion members.
Boehner praised Gens. David Petraeus and Ray Odierno for their leadership in Iraq and thanked not only the servicemembers and their families for their sacrifices, but also Obama “for setting aside his past political rhetoric and recognizing the importance of the surge and the diplomatic agreement signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki.”
Boenher said a democratic Iraq would serve as a “bulwark against the menace posed by the Iranian regime or other extremist forces in the region.” Added Boehner: “The people of that nation -- and this nation -- deserve to know what America is prepared to do if the cause for which our troops sacrificed their lives in Iraq is threatened.''
Boehner called upon Congress to fully support the troops and their mission and for Obama to “take the time to articulate in a coherent, consistent manner to their families and fellow citizens the cause, purpose, and goal of their mission.”
Boehner also focused heavily on Afghanistan and global terrorism during his speech.
“Afghanistan must be resistant to the forces of extremism hell bent on returning to power and it must be resistant to becoming a potential safe haven for terrorist organizations,” Boehner said.
He called on Obama to “do more to emphasize his commitment to ensuring its success rather than focusing on arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal” and “place a greater emphasis on ensuring successful implementation of both the military and civilian components of his strategy.
"Using campaign promises as a yardstick to measure success in Iraq and Afghanistan runs the risk of triggering artificial victory laps and premature withdrawal dates unconnected to conditions on the ground,” Boehner said.
Boehner called for politics to be removed from America's anti-terror strategy and for a coherent detention and interrogation policy. He also called for continued support of America's allies and criticized the direction of American foreign policy.
“The foreign policy of the United States should not be built on a platform of apologies, corrections, and reset buttons,” Boehner said. “We will not confront and defeat the terrorist threat by blurring America’s exceptionalism and backing out on America’s commitments.”