Gates Thanks Danes for Commitment, Sacrifices
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
COPENHAGEN, Denmark, Apr. 1, 2008 Two tables were set within the stone walls of the historic barracks of the Royal Danish Life Guards here for U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ meetings this morning.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Danish Defense Minister Soren Gade answer questions at a news conference after morning meetings in Copenhagen, Denmark, April 1, 2008. Defense Dept. photo by Fred W. Baker III
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
At the first, Gates sat across from Danish Defense Minister Soren Gade. Both leaders were flanked by senior military officials in dress uniforms and policy makers in business suits.
At the second, in a room off to the side, he again sat across from Gade, but this time both were surrounded by about a dozen Danish soldiers in their service uniforms, ranging in rank from private to lieutenant colonel, fresh from combat in Afghanistan.
White tablecloths, chips and soda set the stage for Gates to hear the challenges the soldiers faced while fighting in one of the toughest regions in southern Afghanistan.
Denmark is slightly smaller in size than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. With a population of about 5.5 million, the Danes have lost more soldiers per capita in Afghanistan combat than any other NATO ally. Fourteen Danish servicemembers have died there since 2002 — 10 in the past six months.
Gates said Denmark’s contributions to the effort in Afghanistan are what brought him here for the first trip to Denmark by a U.S. defense secretary in a decade.
“I wanted to come above all to express my thanks on behalf of the American people … and appreciation for the contributions that Denmark is making, especially in Afghanistan,” Gates said in a briefing after the meetings with Gade and the soldiers, “and also to express our condolences for the loss of the fine Danish soldiers.
“Every single one of these casualties is a tragedy,” he continued, “but it is for a greater cause. It is for security in Europe, security in America, as well helping the Afghans develop a country where they have some choice in the future.”
The Danes have about 630 troops in Afghanistan, with most stationed in the south. In all, there are about 18,000 NATO troops there, but NATO officials have said that is not enough to provide adequate security to allow for proper rebuilding efforts. NATO officials said yesterday they need at least three more infantry or maneuver battalions in the country.
Gates said he thinks some countries will announce troop increases for Afghanistan at the NATO summit conference that begins tomorrow in Bucharest, Romania.
“I am reasonably optimistic that there will be additional forces made available for (Regional Command) South,” he said. But, Gates added, he is doubtful it will be all that NATO’s International Security Assistance Force commanders say they need.
A swath of southern Afghanistan that makes up 10 percent of the country’s area and is home to only about 6 percent of the population is where 70 percent of the violence in the country takes place, according to NATO statistics. It is there that the Danes have most of their troops. Gates called their efforts “extraordinary.”
“The Danes are fighting hard in RC South, and I think that there are a handful of us that are carrying that burden,” Gates said. “Denmark is clearly one of the most significant, along with Canada, the Australians, the British and ourselves.”
The United States is sending about 3,500 Marines to Afghanistan this month, with about 2,000 of them heading toward the southern provinces. But they will leave in November, and Gates said NATO’s challenge is filling in behind them.
“This is a challenge for the alliance,” Gates said. “Every ally has fulfilled the specific commitment that they made. What has not been fulfilled is the broader commitment … to provide the ISAF commander with the forces needed to be successful.
“So it is the level of effort above the commitments already made and fulfilled that is the challenge … for the alliance,” Gates said.
Gates said he expects a reaffirmation to come out of the upcoming summit conference that will more solidly place the alliance’s commitment to the region.
“I think part of what will come out of Bucharest, I hope, is a statement of reaffirmation of why NATO is in Afghanistan – why success in Afghanistan is important to the security of Europe and to all of the nations that are partners with us there,” Gates said. “And perhaps that will create the environment in which it is possible for other countries to do more.”
Even so, Denmark’s Gade reinforced that Danish troops will stay in the region, regardless of whether other countries commit to providing reinforcements.
“We will keep doing the job in the south,” Gade said. “We have no plans whatsoever to withdraw or something like that.”
Gates, when questioned about how Americans respond to U.S. soldiers’ deaths there, replied that there is strong support, both public and political, for the fight in Afghanistan.
“We are in Afghanistan because we were attacked from Afghanistan. Three thousand Americans lost their lives because a terrorist attack was planned and executed from Afghanistan,” Gates said. “In terms of the American public, I think there is little question about why we are in Afghanistan.”
Gates finished his visit this morning with a tour of the Danish amphibious command and control ship, the Absalon, docked here. He meets with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Foreign Affairs Minister Per Stig Moller this afternoon, and leaves tomorrow for the NATO summit conference in Bucharest.