'War on terror a long way from won'
Pentagon chief asks region for more help
US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates used his first trip to Asia to deliver a stark message yesterday - he could not say whether Washington and its allies were winning their 'war on terror' after five years, nor how long it would go on.
Invoking cold war rhetoric to describe a clash of ideologies that could run for decades, Dr Gates begged for more help from the region in the fight, particularly to boost Central Asian states.
'I think we are still early in this contest,' he told the annual Shangri-La Dialogue gathering of regional defence chiefs and military analysts in Singapore.
'In particular, the challenge posed by terrorists inspired by radical ideologies cannot be overcome by any one nation - no matter how wealthy or powerful.'
His comments came in response to questions after a speech in which he referred to success only after 'decades, rather than years'.
'As was true in the cold war, overcoming violent extremists will require a long, sustained effort ... It is an asymmetric conflict characterised by insurgencies of various sizes and durations,' Dr Gates said.
'It is fundamentally an ideological struggle, where the appeal of principle and the power of example provided by secure, prosperous and tolerant societies will become the decisive edge. It will take strong coalitions and vibrant alliances.
'And as with the cold war, there will be disappointments and divisions and setbacks.'
He also emphasised the need to increase nation-building to thwart the lure of terrorism in failed states and the need for 'creative approaches' against an elusive, enemy without borders.
Mainland and Vietnamese military delegates bristled at the repeated cold war references, which left some scratching their heads.
In his speech, he described himself as 'an old cold warrior' and outlined America's eventual supremacy over communism, justifying defeat in Vietnam.
But during questions, he was at pains to stress engagement, conciliation and relations that put old suspicions with Beijing and Hanoi aside.
Ahead of the speech, his aides were insistent Dr Gates was determined to put a new face to the Pentagon after the reign of his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, who ruffled feathers across the region.
Strategically, the Central Asia question also raised eyebrows, given the long, sensitive borders with the mainland and Russia.
Dr Gates said the US would be a long-term presence in the area that would 'balance' the interests of China and Russia, insisting it would be complementary.
'He has spoken of his desire for a closer relationship with China, but he is also signalling that the US is going to be on its doorstep for a long time,' one delegate said. 'This one has really got people talking. It is not quite what they were expecting.'
Much of Dr Gates' speech was devoted to Central Asia, particularly war-torn Afghanistan, where he urged greater action from East Asia to boost economies, help build infrastructure and foster regional integration.
On Iraq, he insisted that Washington would not let its war fail. 'Whatever your views on how we got to this point in Iraq, it is clear that a failed state in that part of the world would destabilise the region ... the effects of chaos in either Central or Southwest Asia will not recognise national, continental or region boundaries.'
At the same time, he sought to scotch talk that Iraq and Afghanistan were diverting Washington's attention from East Asia.