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Statement to NATO Defense Ministers

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, Friday, March 11, 2011

Mr. Secretary General, thank you for the chance to speak this morning, at what I believe is a critical juncture for our mission in Afghanistan. 

In the past year, our men and women on the ground, in partnership with Afghan Forces, have dealt a heavy blow to the Taliban insurgency, securing population centers and pushing the Taliban out of vital areas in the south and east.  Thanks to this progress, further detailed by General Petraeus, we have the opportunity this year to begin the first steps in a process that will transition the lead for security responsibility to the Government of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, in accordance with the principles our leaders agreed to at Lisbon.  Yet even as we move ahead on transition, we know there will be harder and heavier fighting to come in the months ahead, and that many of the gains we have seen could be reversed if we do not remain fully committed to this effort. 

So with that in mind, I want to address three main items today:

  • First, our mission in Afghanistan and the undeniable progress the ISAF campaign has made in the past year;
  • Second, my very serious concern that this progress could be threatened by ill-timed, precipitous, or uncoordinated national drawdowns; and,
  • Finally, how we can instead plan for a transition to Afghan lead that will be deliberate, organized, and coordinated – thus giving us the chance to make irreversible the security gains we have all fought so hard for.

A little over 13 months ago, we met in Istanbul on the heels of President Obama’s announcement of a U.S. commitment of 30,000 additional troops, and a reinvigorated strategy that reminded us all why we are fighting there: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and prevent Afghanistan and Pakistan from again becoming safe havens for trans-national terrorism.  To this end, our focus has been on degrading the capabilities of the Taliban and preventing insurgent groups from overthrowing the government of Afghanistan, while building up the Afghan National Security Forces to sustain their own security.

Over the past year, the additional forces that we put in place, and the increasing capabilities of the ANSF, have allowed us significantly to expand, and move closer to linking, zones of security in the crucial south and east.  The Taliban control far less territory than they did a year ago.  They are increasingly demoralized and their ability to operate is increasingly degraded.  A semblance of normalcy is emerging for the Afghan people, most notably in the Taliban’s heartland of Kandahar and Helmand.  Across the south and east, routes that had been used by insurgents to infiltrate key cities are now safer, and as a result commerce has grown and vital marketplaces are increasingly linked.  But our enemies have shown their resilience in the past, and we are fully expecting fierce fighting in the months ahead – only now, our forces will have the home field advantage. 

Which brings me to my second point: I am very concerned that if we do not maintain the unity and commitment to success we expressed at Lisbon, the progress we now see could be threatened.  Unfortunately, some of the recent rhetoric that is coming from capitals on this continent is calling into question that resolve.  Frankly, there is too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right.  Too much discussion of exit and not enough discussion about continuing the fight.  Too much concern about when and how many troops might redeploy, and not enough about what needs to be done before they leave.  

Now, I say this while recognizing the intense pressure that many nations face to reduce their commitment.  We have all made extraordinary contributions to this effort, in the face of fiscal austerity and political pressure.  The U.S. has surged 30,000 new troops in the past year for a total of nearly 100,000, and we have tripled our civilian commitment.  We are spending $120 billion a year to sustain this effort and are seeking $12.8 billion to build the Afghan Army and Police in 2012.  We, like many of you, suffered more casualties in 2010 than in any previous year of the war.  These are the tragic costs of success, but we bear them because it is in our shared security interests to do so.  And in order to ensure that these sacrifices are not squandered, we need to keep our focus on succeeding in our missions, and not get pulled away prematurely.

When President Obama ordered the 30,000 U.S. surge forces, he said the United States would begin a responsible drawdown in July 2011.  Thanks to the progress we have made, we are setting the right circumstances to begin to reduce some of those U.S. surge forces in July, but we will do that based on conditions on the ground and in coordination with NATO and our allies.  We will not sacrifice the significant gains made to date, or the lives lost, for a political gesture.

In return, we expect the same from your nations.  Let me be clear – uncoordinated national drawdowns would risk the gains made to date.  Considerations about any drawdown of forces must be driven by security conditions and the ISAF commander’s operational needs, and not by mathematical calculation shaped by political concern.

The vehicle for transition must be an organized, coordinated, and deliberate process, which brings me to the implementing principles before us today.  I believe they offer both strategic reassurance to the Afghans and clear guidance for our forces, and I endorse them.  Agreeing to these implementing principles will ensure that transition lives up to the Lisbon framework and supports the Enduring Partnership signed between NATO and Afghanistan. These principles make clear that while we are transitioning, we are not leaving.  For example, the principle of continuity will mean that current Regional Command Lead Nations, Task Force Commanders, and Provincial-leads remain critical international partners in their assigned areas, and are held accountable for ensuring success in that region throughout the transition process.         

Another principle, reinvestment of forces, especially as trainers and mentors, would commit us to filling a significant shortfall that has hampered our efforts.  As has been said before, trainers are the ticket to transition.  And I urge you to work with your governments and other potential partner countries to fill the gaps identified by our commanders. 

While filling these urgent requirements will improve near-term progress of transition, its enduring success will be facilitated by commitment to the sustainment of the ANSF.  I challenge you here today to collectively increase your contributions to the sustainment of the Afghan Security forces by providing one billion Euros annually to the ANA Trust Fund.  This annual commitment, in addition to the $12.8 billion dollars the U.S. is seeking for next year, will further increase Afghan capacity and enhance the likelihood of transition’s success

Also, as we consider the elements of effective transition, it is worth recalling the core grievances in Afghanistan that spawned and subsequently empowered the Taliban 20 years ago.  One of these grievances was the lack of government at the local level, which fed lawlessness and corruption that affected individual Afghans in their daily lives.  Under such conditions, the harsh and repressive forms of dispute resolution and discipline advertised by the Taliban as justice seemed a tolerable alternative.  Unfortunately, a vacuum of governance remains in key areas.  We must support the Afghan government in its efforts to establish basic dispute resolution in key districts in order to facilitate improvements in security, to create the conditions that foster the reintegration and reconciliation of former insurgents, and to combat corruption that undermines trust in the Afghan government. All these goals support a durable transition. 

Within this context, the U.S. strongly supports the proposal for a NATO Rule of Law Field Support Mission currently being considered within the ISAF coalition.  This new mission would bring to bear much-needed field capabilities, liaison, and security in support of Afghan and international civilian providers of technical assistance; these civilian providers can then more  effectively help Afghans increase access to dispute resolution services and enhance the legitimacy of the Afghan government.  If we don’t win here, the Taliban will.

If transition proceeds in a coordinated, organized way, we can sow the seeds of long-term success in Afghanistan.  We can’t lose our momentum, or give in to calls to withdraw before the job is finished.  America continues to be willing to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden, but we cannot do it alone. 

So I ask today, as we consider our national decisions going forward, that we abide by the principle of “in together, out together.”  An Afghanistan that is secure, self-reliant and on the path toward stability will benefit our collective security for years to come, but we need time to allow the process to work.  I urge us all to keep this in mind; resist the urge to do what it is politically expedient and have the courage of patience.

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