Gates Trip Aimed at Understanding Ground-truth
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2007 Seeking ground-truth, Robert M. Gates made his second trip of his less than month-long tour as defense secretary to the U.S. Central Command area of operations.
Gates met with soldiers and kings, sailors and emirs, airmen and sheikhs and Marines and presidents during the six-day visit to seven countries. He specifically sought out opportunities to speak with allies and coalition partners on the visit. He returned to Washington very early this morning.
The trip started Jan. 14 with a stop in London to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Defense Minister Des Browne. Officials traveling with Gates said the secretary wanted to personally get the feelings and thoughts of America’s closest allies in the war on terror.
The next day, Gates traveled to NATO headquarters in Brussels for meetings with Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and the Supreme Allied Commander U.S. Army Gen. Bantz Craddock. NATO commands the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and has personnel helping train the Iraqi Army.
There are more than 30,000 soldiers from 37 NATO and partner countries serving in ISAF. Gates called the NATO mission in Afghanistan a model of the organization’s potential in the new era. “Success in Afghanistan is our top priority,” he said. “The alliance that never fired a shot in the Cold War is leading six missions on three continents and on the Mediterranean.”
The secretary and his party moved from Brussels to Afghanistan aboard an Air Force C-17. Outfitted with a traveling office in a modified Airstream trailer called the “Silver Bullet,” the secretary conducted business as if he were in his office in the Pentagon.
In Kabul, the secretary met up with Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and embarked on a challenging set of meetings and visits. He met with ISAF commander British Army Gen. David Richards, Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the commander of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan and the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann.
In the afternoon, Gates and Pace flew to Forward Operating Base Tillman on the border with Pakistan to meet with American and Afghan soldiers who are on the front line of the war on terror. Taliban extremists are infiltrating from Pakistan in an attempt to drive the government from power. Gates met with the soldiers of A Company 2nd Battation 87th Infantry, and received a briefing from the commander on the way Afghan and U.S. troops work together.
On his return to Kabul, Gates and Pace met with Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardek and then President Hamid Karzai. Gates said the progress in Afghanistan is impressive and he wants to build on those successes. Gates also was impressed with preparations to ensure that the expected Taliban spring offensive in Afghanistan is blunted. “I think it’s very important that we not let the success here in Afghanistan slip away from us, and that we keep the initiative,” Gates said. “There is no reason for us to sit back and let the Taliban regroup and threaten the progress that has been made here.”
Gates also said commanders in Afghanistan have asked for more troops for the coming battle. “Clearly, if the people who are leading the struggle out here believe there is a need for some additional help to sustain the success we’ve had, I’m going to be very sympathetic to that kind of request,” he said.
The next day the secretary and chairman traveled to Bagram Air Base, east of the capital where he met with U.S. officials at the base. The secretary was supposed to go to visit troops in Kandahar, but a sandstorm in the area closed the airport and he had to cancel that portion of the trip.
At Bagram, Pace left the party to travel to Colombia for meetings with leaders there.
The secretary flew to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where he met with King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan. He briefed the men on conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq and spoke with them about the situation with Iran. The Saudis tend to see the situation in Iraq through the lens of the new challenges Iran poses to the region, officials traveling with the secretary said.
The secretary was a bit more plain-spoken on Jan. 18 when he told reporters traveling with him that the Iranians have overplayed their hand. “I told them that I felt the Iranians were being very aggressive,” he said. “I believe (the Iranians) feel they have the United States at a disadvantage because of the situation in Iraq. To be precise, I told them both that I thought the Iranians were overplaying their hands. One of the consequences of that, is they have raised real concerns about their intentions in the region and beyond.”
Following the meetings, Gates traveled to Bahrain. In Bahrain, he met with the king and defense minister and then with Navy Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. In the afternoon, he went to Qatar where he met with Emir and Defense Minister Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
The next day he flew to Basra, Iraq where he met with Army Gen. George Casey, the commander of Multinational Forces Iraq, and British Army Maj. Gen. Jonathan Shaw, the commander of Multinational Division Southeast. He moved on to Tallil Air Base northwest of Basra and met with coalition and Iraqi commanders.
He went from Tallil to Bahrain and back to Washington. It was a grueling trip for the new secretary. Together with his trip to Iraq last month it was an effort to gather the latest information from commanders at all levels and the feelings of allies. “To the extent that this is a fact-finding trip, I’ve found at least one fact: I’m too old to do seven countries in five-and-a-half days,” Gates said in Tallil. But, he said later, he will continue to visit hot spots around the world to better understand the situation of the men and women serving in those areas.