By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 8, 2007 – NATO-led forces can counter the traditional Taliban-led spring offensive in Afghanistan if the allies prepare now, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today at a press conference following a day of informal NATO meetings. Each spring for the last several years, the Taliban have been more aggressive, and there has been a growing level of violence, the secretary said.
The allies agree that 2007 is a crucial year for Afghanistan, Gates said.
"I think there is consensus on the part of the ministers that it's important that we knock that back and bring the situation fully under control," he said.
Countering the Taliban offensive would help the Afghan people have confidence that their government is making progress and that the security picture is improving. This would allow for for greater economic development in the country, Gates said.
After visiting Afghanistan about three weeks ago, the secretary said he came away more optimistic about prospects in Afghanistan than when he arrived there. "Flying out to one of the forward operations bases near the Pakistani border, I was struck by the amount of new construction of buildings, roads and so on," he said.
"I think there are some real opportunities here, and I think that one of the reasons we're pushing as hard as we are is that we have an opportunity this spring to significantly disrupt the increasing cycles of violence that we've seen over the last several years caused by the Taliban," Gates said.
NATO's strategy for the spring, he said, will focus on enhancing border operations, enabling the faster delivery of good government and aid to the Afghan people and accelerating training and equipping Afghan national security forces.
The secretary said he agreed with Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak's determination that "the spring offensive should be our offensive."
Overall, Gates said the NATO allies' level of commitment in Afghanistan is extraordinary. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force mission there is the alliance's first deployment outside of Europe, and all 26 member countries are playing a role.
Gates noted that a number of NATO nations made new commitments to the mission during a November conference in Riga, Latvia, and some also agreed to look at lifting certain national caveats on how deployed troops could operate. A number of those caveats have now been lifted, allowing for great flexibility. Gates said that some allies also made new commitments today.
"I was very clear in saying that I believe that nations should fulfill all of the commitments that they have made," the secretary stressed. "I hope that they will do so promptly so they can have some impact during the spring offensive in the next few months.
Gates said he also reaffirmed the U.S. decision to extend a brigade of U.S. forces for 120 days, effectively doubling the U.S. commitment of maneuver forces in Afghanistan.
"This comes on top of the U.S. commitment over the next two years of $8.6 billion dollars for the Afghan national defense forces and $2 billion for development," he said.
The importance of taking a comprehensive approach in Afghanistan was the general theme of the day's meetings, the secretary said. Much of the discussion focused on the need to ensure that security and development go hand-in-hand.
"It's really important to accompany military action against the Taliban and others who are trying to break down the Afghan government ... with strong economic development and better government," he said. "There are a lot of non-military challenges that go hand in hand with the military in terms of trying to build a strong, democratic Afghanistan."
During tomorrow's meetings, Gates said he will urge the NATO ministers to join the United States in strengthening their commitment to defense by increasing their budgets for deployable forces.
"It seems to me that the lessons of the 21st century are pretty clear," he said. "The world needs a strong NATO, and that will require investment and burden sharing by all 26 members of the alliance."
International reporters queried the secretary about the bilateral meetings he'd had during the course of the day, particularly his meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Gates, who formerly served as head of the CIA, said that as the two men sat down, they commented that they were "two old intelligence guys getting together."
"We had a very candid conversation, a very useful one, I thought," Gates said. "He has invited me to visit Russia and I agreed in principle to do that at a time to be determined. We do have differences. There's no question about that, but I think having conversations like this and having frank discussions is clearly the best way to go."
When a journalist asked Gates about reported Iranian missile tests conducted today, Gates calmly replied, "My impression is that they make threats like this from time to time.
"We have no intention of attacking Iran," he said. "The president said that. The secretary of state said it. I've said it before. Obviously when it comes to things like these tests, we watch them closely. Other than that, I think it's just another day in the Persian Gulf."
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