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Afghanistan, NATO Summit Top Defense Ministers’ Agenda

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Feb. 18, 2009 – Afghanistan and preparations for April’s NATO summit meeting are the two topics that will dominate the alliance’s meeting of defense ministers tomorrow and Feb. 20 in Krakow, Poland, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, right, and British Defence Secretary John Hutton talk at the non-NATO International Security Assistance Force meeting in Krakow, Poland, Feb. 19, 2009. DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison
  

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Gates signed orders yesterday that will send 12,000 more Marines and soldiers to Afghanistan, and he told reporters traveling with him to the conference that it’s unlikely the NATO allies will match such a commitment.

The message of President Barack Obama’s administration that he will carry to his fellow NATO defense ministers this week is that as the United States steps up in Afghanistan, so must other NATO countries, the secretary said.

“The administration is prepared, as the president made clear yesterday, to make additional commitments to Afghanistan,” Gates said. “But there clearly are expectations that the allies must do more as well.”

The United States would like to see more NATO forces in Afghanistan for the period before the country’s August elections, Gates said.

“We will continue to ask the allies to provide even a short-term plus-up in their forces to provide security in the pre-election period,” he told reporters.

The secretary said the United States also will continue to ask the allies for long-term help that does not necessarily have to be military aid. He stressed the need for help in establishing governance at the local, provincial and federal levels, as well as in police training, development, rule-of-law issues, corruption and counternarcotics.

“These are all areas where civilian contributions can be made,” Gates said.

Such nonmilitary contributions also may be more palatable to his fellow defense ministers’ electorates back home, the secretary said.

“There is a lot of talk about a comprehensive approach to Afghanistan, and we really need additional help on the civilian side,” he said. “There needs to be a strengthening on the civilian side as we are strengthening on the military side.”

Countries that cannot send more troops still can contribute to the fund that will finance the Afghan National Army, Gates said. The United States has asked Japan, South Korea, the Gulf States and more to contribute to this fund, he noted.

Though no one is giving the NATO allies specific numbers to meet, troop requirements in Afghanistan have gone unfilled. Gates said he hopes the ministers will talk about this at the Krakow meeting, but he acknowledged that “frankly, the response so far has been disappointing.”

The NATO allies still must come forward with contributions for operational mentoring and liaison teams to work with the Afghan National Army, especially as it continues to grow, the secretary said.

Gates said the NATO Response Force could be brought to bear in Afghanistan, but that hasn’t happened because of a disagreement within the alliance.

“It’s tough to get people to meet their [NATO Response Force] responsibilities if there’s no notion they’ll ever be used anyplace. It becomes a paper exercise,” the secretary said. “My notion is this pre-election period in Afghanistan is a good example where the NRF could provide a temporary strengthening of NATO’s capability.”

In adding 15,000 troops to Afghanistan in the past year, the allies have fulfilled the commitments they made, Gates said, but more needs to be done. Some decisions must wait until the Obama administration’s strategic review now under way is finished, he added. The possible deployment of a U.S. training brigade, for example, is in abeyance until the review is finished.

The civilian portion of the strategic review cannot be underestimated, Gates said, and U.S. officials are working with allies and the United Nations to get their input. “We want the Afghans and Pakistanis to be part of the review so that what we have represents a broad view of the way ahead in Afghanistan,” he said.

Kai Eide, the U.N. coordinator for Afghanistan, is the central figure on the civilian side of the campaign in Afghanistan. “Anything we can do the help him and to strengthen him we will do,” Gates said.

Gates said he also hopes to discuss opportunities for relating with Russia. Since Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August, the NATO-Russia dialogue that usually is part of the alliance’s meetings of defense ministers has not taken place.

The United States must review its relationship with Russia, the secretary said. “There are Russian behaviors that are a concern to us, but we also need the Russians,” he said. “We need to work this relationship through in a constructive way that allows us to move forward, but at the same time remain mindful of some of their actions that still give us a problem.”

The secretary said he thinks the Russians are trying to have it both ways with respect to Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, a key logistics hub for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. After a meeting early this month between Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Kyrgyzstan’s government announced it’s considering closing the base.

“On the one hand, [the Russians] are making positive noises about working with us on Afghanistan,” Gates said. “On the other hand, they are working against us in terms of that airfield that is clearly important to us.”

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDefense Secretary Robert M. Gates, right, listens to questions from members of the press during a press availability aboard the National Airborne Operations Center aircraft before departing for Krakow Poland, Feb. 18, 2009. Gates was headed to Poland to meet with NATO defense ministers. DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison  
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