By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 14, 2007 – Continued progress in Afghanistan and details of President Bush's new way forward in Iraq were the topics of discussion today as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with British leaders here. Recognizing Britain's tremendous contributions to the war on terror, Gates met with Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street and Defense Minister Des Browne at the Lancaster House here.
The British have more than 7,000 troops in Iraq and more than 5,000 in Afghanistan. Over the weekend, British forces lost soldiers in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gates said in his previous government service he had a good, close working relationship with America's British allies and that he looks forward to the same sort of relationship as defense secretary.
The secretary, who announced during a short statement following his meeting with Browne that he will travel to Afghanistan in a few days, wants to speak with British and NATO leaders about what the allies there can do to thwart the Taliban's threatened spring offensive, a senior defense official said on background. Gates also wants to discuss what further steps can be taken to strengthen the Afghan government, the official said.
Gates wants to make sure NATO stays on top of the situation in Afghanistan. The Afghan people and the allies have "had a real victory there," and "don't want to - through negligence - see the situation deteriorate," the official said.
There is a threat of a Taliban offensive against Afghan and NATO forces. Recently, Afghan and NATO forces killed more than 150 Taliban fighters trying to come into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Officials said they see a "fair amount" of Taliban activity in the southern portion of Afghanistan. And historically, the Afghans fight in the spring, summer and fall and regroup during the very harsh winter.
Although the Taliban suffered severe setbacks in 2006, there was a higher level of activity and violence during the year, the official said. "We just want to ensure we can put them back in the box," he said.
Gates will also discuss what the alliance can do an alliance to strengthen the Afghan government. Construction and reconstruction are keys to progress in the country, the official said.
The other theme Gates will discuss is Iraq and the regional security implications of operations in Iraq. Here in London, the secretary wants to hear more of the British thinking about conditions in Iraq, the official said.
Gates will discuss some aspects of President Bush's strategic plan with the British allies, the official said. One aspect that will receive a lot of attention is the Iraqi government's lead in the operation. The Iraqi government wants the lead and its officials are asserting themselves, said the senior official. Iraq has promised three brigades of troops for Baghdad, and Iraqi officials promised a hands-off approach for military forces in the city. Forces will be able to go into any neighborhood without restriction.
The official said Iraqi failures in the past had more to do with a lack of capacity and capability than lack of will. The Iraqi government has been in power less than a year, and the political system has not matured to the point where it can deliver yet, he said.
Congress' questioning of Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice late last week reflects that representatives and senators are frustrated with the status quo, the official said.
But the congressional panels also realize how high the stakes are in Iraq. Not a single representative or senator said that "failure is acceptable or that failure will not have severe strategic consequences to the United States," the official said.
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