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Nature of Conflict in Afghanistan Changing, Gates Says

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

CANBERRA, Australia, Feb. 24, 2008 – The Taliban in Afghanistan will resort to more terror killings because they have been unsuccessful against NATO and U.S. troops in direct combat, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

“What we are likely to see is more use of terror -- killings of school teachers, local officials, things like that, the use of (improvised explosive devices) to try to sap the will of coalition partners as well as the Afghans and to bring discredit to the Afghan government because of its seemly inability to bring security to the rural areas,” Gates said at a roundtable discussion with U.S. and Australian reporters.

This has led to a change in the nature of the conflict in that region, he said. Gates said the Taliban is resorting to more insurgency-type tactics. “The Taliban has seen over the last year and a half or so that they cannot defeat the NATO or our forces in regular kinds of conflict where they bring scores or hundreds of people to battle. They lose all the time when they do that,” Gates said.

Gates lauded military successes in the region over the past few years, but said that gains could be compromised if troop strength isn’t sufficient to hold the gains. The Taliban occupy no territory in Afghanistan at this point nor have they won any military engagements.

“The problem is that, while we were able to clear the Taliban in certain areas when we had an operation, we don’t have enough force to be able hold some of those areas. It’s the same kind of problem we encountered in Iraq,” Gates said. “The way to deal with this long term clearly is (developing) the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. So it has to be a partnership between ourselves and the Afghans, with more and more of the effort gradually shifting to the Afghans.”

Gates said troops on the ground there will continue to adjust their tactics, as well as continue training the Afghan National Army and Police. He also emphasized better coordination of economic development and reconstruction in the region, as well as helping develop local governance. Where local governance is strong, development is more successful, Gates said.

The secretary also told reporters that the return of the Taliban to the region could have devastating effects on Europe. “A return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan poses a direct threat to Europeans. I think the European governments understand this. I think we all just need to do a better job of helping the broader public understand that,” Gates said.

In a speech in Munich earlier this month, Gates drew a connection between terrorist attacks over the past few years in Europe, as well as those that were thwarted, and al Qaeda training in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, its supply of money, and expertise.

“These attacks are coming out of that region and are focused very much on European targets,” Gates said.

He said the United States and NATO have no inclinations of leaving Afghanistan and allowing the return of the Taliban, and added that allies need to reexamine their commitments to the region. “I think that the efforts to call attention to the need to meet the needs of the NATO commander as pledged … by the NATO heads of government … will have some effect,” Gates said.

Some countries are considering increasing their commitments. Some are extending their commitments, and others still are examining how to help in noncombat-related ways.

“It requires staying power on our part. It requires continued success in training the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police,” Gates said. “I think the only way that the Taliban might return to power is, frankly, if everyone just turned their backs on Afghanistan and walked out. I don’t think anybody’s going to do that.”

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Biographies:
Robert M. Gates

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Web special report: Travels with Gates

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