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Gates: NATO Must Increase Assets, Cut Caveats in Afghanistan

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

HEIDELBERG, Germany, Oct. 25, 2007 – Defense Secretary Robert M Gates urged European military leaders meeting here today to step up their countries’ contributions in Afghanistan and eliminate restrictions on their forces that threaten the mission’s success. (Video)

The NATO alliance has made huge contributions leading the International Security Assistance Force, Gates told officers attending the 15th Conference of European Armies. U.S. Army Europe sponsors the annual ground-forces conference.

He noted that NATO leads 25 provincial reconstruction teams that are helping the Afghans build infrastructure, while some allies are conducting decisive military actions that are thwarting Taliban efforts. Meanwhile, Gates said, NATO is helping to build Afghan security forces. The Afghan army is now 47,000 members strong and represents every major Afghan ethnic group.

However, Gates expressed concern that, without more mentoring and liaison teams and other resources, momentum won’t continue. “Our progress in Afghanistan is real, but it is fragile,” he told the officers.

The secretary repeated the message he delivered yesterday to NATO ministers during their conference in Noordwijk, Netherlands: NATO needs to commit more resources to ensure the mission succeeds.

“At this time, many allies are unwilling to share the risks, commit the resources and follow through on collective commitments to this mission and to each other,” he said. “As a result, we risk allowing what has been achieved in Afghanistan to slip away.”

Another big problem is caveats, restrictions imposed by individual countries on how their forces can be used within NATO. Gates said this problem is “symptomatic of a deeper challenge facing NATO.”

He compared the problem to a chess game in which one player enjoys full liberty of motion and another can move only a single space in a single direction. “One player is clearly handicapped,” he said. “Similarly, restrictions placed on what a given nation’s forces can do and where they can go put this alliance at a sizable disadvantage.”

Gates said he recognizes countries’ need for political oversight of their deployed ground forces and that each NATO country has a different political and economic landscape.

“While there will be nuances particular to each country’s rules of engagement, the ‘strings’ attached to one nation’s forces unfairly burden others and have done real harm in Afghanistan,” he said.

Gates urged conference participants to get their governments to take another look at these restrictions. “As you know, better than most people, brothers in arms achieve victory only when all march in step toward the sound of the guns,” he said.

“To that end,” he said, “I’m asking for your help to make caveats in NATO operations, wherever they are, as benign as possible -- and better yet, to convince your national leaders to lift restrictions on field commanders that impede their ability to succeed in critical missions.”

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