Gates Expresses Optimism on Afghanistan, But Counsels Caution
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 11, 2007 U.S. and coalition efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are achieving “solid results,” but the mission isn’t over, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told U.S. legislators at a Capitol Hill hearing today.
“Notwithstanding the news we sometimes hear out of Afghanistan, the efforts of the United States, our allies and the Afghan government and people have been producing some solid results,” Gates told U.S. House Armed Services Committee members. He recently returned from one of several trips he has taken to Afghanistan as defense secretary.
Offering his assessment of the current situation in Afghanistan, Gates said: “There is reason for optimism, but tempered by caution.”
To better the lives of Afghanistan’s citizens, numerous utilities, schools and roads have been constructed across the country, Gates said. The U.S. Congress appropriated about $10 billion for Afghan security and reconstruction projects in fiscal 2007, Gates noted, three times the money appropriated in the previous fiscal year.
In the first half of this year, NATO and coalition forces “took the initiative away from the Taliban” insurgents during a series of military offensives, Gates said. NATO last year assumed responsibility for security and stabilization duties in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s security forces have played a major role in recent victories against the insurgents, including the ousting of the Taliban from their former stronghold in the town of Musa Qala earlier this week, Gates pointed out.
However, the numbers of terrorist-committed attacks in Afghanistan have increased this year, Gates noted.
“The insurgents have resorted, more and more, to suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices similar to those found in Iraq,” Gates said, noting some of the increase can be attributed to increased anti-insurgent operations.
However, “the Taliban and their former guests, al Qaeda, do not have the ability to re-impose their rule” in Afghanistan, Gates pointed out. Yet, reconstruction projects and the rule of law can only take root and flourish through the establishment of a secure environment in Afghanistan, the secretary said.
“That environment has not been fully achieved, but we are working toward it,” Gates said.
For example, efforts are under way to assault Afghanistan’s poppy-fueled drug trade, Gates said. Poppy flowers are used to make heroin, and Taliban insurgents enjoy profits from the poppy-growing trade.
“To attack this corrosive problem, a counter-narcotics strategy is being implemented that combines five pillars: alternative development, interdiction, eradication, public information and reform of the justice sector,” Gates said. “I hope that the coming year will show results.”
Also, Afghans would benefit by the appointment of a government official who’d be dedicated to coordinating assistance efforts with key international organizations, Gates said, noting efforts have been ongoing with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to identify a suitable candidate.
Gates also cited the need for NATO allies to meet their commitments in Afghanistan. Since the International Security Assistance Force assumed responsibility for all Afghanistan operations in October 2006, he said, NATO is experiencing commitment shortfalls in troops, equipment and other resources.
Gates said he’ll bring up the topic during an upcoming meeting in Scotland with NATO-aligned defense ministers responsible for operations in southern Afghanistan. Gates said he’d also discuss the idea of NATO assessing its needs in Afghanistan looking three to five years out.
“The Afghanistan mission has exposed real limitations in the way the alliance is organized, operated and equipped,” Gates said. “I believe the problem arises in a large part due the way various (NATO) allies view the very nature of the alliance in the 21st century. We’re in a post-Cold War environment. We have to be ready to operate in distant locations against insurgencies and terrorist networks.”
Gates urged Congress to lend its support.
“If other governments are pressured by this body, and by the Senate, as well as by those of us in the executive branch, it may help push them to do the difficult work of persuading their own citizens of the need to step up to this challenge,” the secretary said.
Gates also cited recent successes achieved against insurgents that’d operated in Afghanistan’s formerly volatile Khowst region. Today, that area has largely been tamed of Taliban-committed violence, he said.
Suicide bombings in the Khowst region have declined from an average of one a week a year ago to one per month, Gates pointed out.
“For years, and even decades, the Khowst region has been a hotbed of lawlessness and insurgent activity. Things are very different today,” Gates said. Thanks to a strong and capable governor, with Afghans in the lead, there have been remarkable gains made against insurgent violence, he said.
NATO, coalition and Afghan security forces, local organizations and U.S.-led provincial reconstruction teams -- with representatives from the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- have worked together to promote civic and economic development, Gates said.
“Khowst is a model of the integration of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, and a counter-insurgency campaign,” Gates said. “It is an example of what can be done in other regions.”