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Gates: Afghanistan Presents Formidable Problem to U.S., NATO

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 10, 2008 – Though positive developments have taken place in Afghanistan, the United States, the Afghan government and NATO still face a classic insurgency “fueled by ideology, poppy, poverty, crime and corruption,” complicated by political upheaval in Pakistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.

Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Navy Adm. Mike Mullen testified before the House Armed Services Committee.

“The persistent and increasing violence resulting from an organized insurgency is, of course, our greatest concern,” Gates told the lawmakers. “The president has decided to send more troops to Afghanistan in response to resurgent extremism and violence reflecting greater ambition, sophistication and coordination.”

President Bush announced yesterday that a Marine battalion will deploy to Afghanistan in November to take up the training mission for Afghan security forces. An Army brigade combat team will begin deploying in January to the country. About 31,000 U.S. servicemembers are in Afghanistan today.

The number and sophistication of Taliban and al-Qaida attacks have increased since the spring. Attacks against a U.S. border outpost, a French-Afghan patrol and a prison in the south showed the Taliban still are potent enemies, Gates said.

“In some cases, this is a result of safe havens in Pakistan and reduced military pressure on that side of the border,” he said. “In others, it is the result of more international and Afghan troops on the battlefield – troops that are increasingly in contact with the enemy.”

NATO has increased its forces in Afghanistan to roughly 31,000, and NATO allies and other associated countries have promised more troops for the future. But NATO’s International Security Assistance Force still faces shortfalls and coordination problems, the secretary said. Liaison among military units, civilian agencies and nongovernmental agencies – especially at the provincial reconstruction teams – is difficult, he said.

Military force is only part of the equation in the country, Gates said. “Security is just one aspect of the campaign, alongside development and governance,” he explained. “We must maintain momentum, keep the international community engaged and develop the capacity of the Afghan government.”

All entities must work together better than they have been to confront Afghanistan’s problems, the secretary said. “I am still not satisfied with the level of coordination and collaboration among the numerous partners and many moving parts associated with civil reconstruction and development and building the capacity of the Afghan government,” he told the House panel.

And the enemy has a vote, too, the secretary said. Taliban and al-Qaida forces are using the tribal areas on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan as a safe haven.

“As in Iraq, until the insurgency is deprived of safe havens, insecurity and violence will persist,” Gates said. “We are working with Pakistan in a number of areas, and I do believe that Islamabad appreciates the magnitude of the threat from the tribal areas – particularly considering the uptick in suicide bombings directed at Pakistani targets.”

The Pakistani government is in flux, with a new president in office. But the country is critical for success in the region, Gates said. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is mountainous and forbidding. The hills are pockmarked with caves that only natives know. And the region is home to tribes that straddle the border, unaccustomed to stopping at a border checkpoint before going to see relatives.

“During this time of political turmoil in Pakistan, it is especially crucial that we maintain a strong and positive relationship with the government, since any deterioration would be a setback for both Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Gates said. “The war on terror started in this region. It must end there.”

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Biographies:
Robert M. Gates


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