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Gates Travels to Europe for NATO Discussions

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 9, 2009 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will depart for NATO meetings in the Netherlands and Belgium this evening.

Operations in Afghanistan will top the discussions in Maastricht, while the focus in Brussels will include other issues of interest to NATO, such as Russia, missile defense, Kosovo and Georgia, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said.

“They will discuss a range of organizational and security issues confronting the alliance,” he said during a news conference. “But as you might expect, the NATO operations in Afghanistan will likely dominate their discussions.”

The secretary will first visit Maastricht, where Dutch leaders will host a meeting of defense ministers with troops in Afghanistan’s Regional Command South. The secretary will then move to the quarterly NATO defense ministers conference at the alliance headquarters in Brussels.

About 56,000 U.S. servicemembers are in Afghanistan, with the number projected to grow to 68,000 by the end of the year. The 33,000 NATO and allied troops in the nation is to grow to 35,000.

Most of the U.S. forces going into the country are moving in to Regional Command South. Marine units already have started operations in the region, even as more flow in – a thousand Marines are arriving this week, Pentagon officials said. The 2nd Infantry Division’s 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team will deploy to Regional Command South in July. Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team are to arrive in Afghanistan by the end of August to serve as trainers for the Afghan army and police.

Most of the fighting in Afghanistan is in regional commands South and East. Some 80 percent of the attacks are in 15 percent of the districts. Some of the increase is because coalition and Afghan forces are operating in areas where they had never been before, especially in Regional Command South, Defense Department officials said.

Deaths of noncombatants are a particular sore point in Afghanistan. But in 2009, civilian deaths are down 27 percent from this time last year. At the same time, deaths of U.S. and NATO International Security Assistance Force personnel are up 27 percent, and deaths of Afghan security forces are up a third over last year.

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