By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 11, 2007 - The United Kingdom is a close ally of the United States that has made major contributions to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today. "This is our fifth meeting this year, which is a sign of the close cooperation we have on security matters," Gates told American and British reporters during a brief news conference with British Secretary of State for Defense Desmond Browne following a meeting at Lancaster House, a prestigious meeting venue managed by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Gates said his talks with Browne primarily focused on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The United Kingdom has been and continues to be a stalwart ally and major contributor to every stage of the Iraq campaign," he said. "The reduction of British forces in Basra (Iraq) is based on the assessment of the readiness of the Iraqi security forces in the area."
He added that the decision was closely coordinated with Multinational Force Iraq Commander Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and other officials in the command. The secretary noted that Petraeus will do another report on the security situation in Iraq on March.
Gates said his talks with Browne on Afghanistan previewed many issues that will be discussed in two weeks at a NATO ministerial conference. "We reviewed the status of the (International Security Assistance Force) operation and focused on the situation in parts of the south.
"The United Kingdom is making a substantial contribution in Afghanistan -- some 6,000 troops, the second-largest contingent," Gates said. "British forces are working closely with the Afghan army, taking the fight directly to the enemy, making a difference to the people of Afghanistan and also playing an important role in civic development."
Responding to a question about a report that the U.S. Marine Corps commandant is proposing U.S. Marines pull out of Iraq to bolster the force in Afghanistan, Gates said he "had heard that they were beginning to think about that, and that's all I heard."
"I've seen no plan," Gates said. "No one has come to me with any proposals about it. My understanding is that, at this point, it's extremely preliminary thinking on the part of perhaps the staff people in the Marine Corps. But I don't think at this point it has any standing."
Asked about lingering resentment over Turkey's World War I-era mass murder of Armenians, Gates said he is "quite concerned." The issue has come to the forefront because the U.S. House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday passed a nonbinding resolution that characterized the mass killings of Armenians, which began in 1915, as genocide. Turkey has threatened to cut off its support of coalition operations in Iraq over the resolution, and White House officials urged House members to kill the measure.
"This is a very sensitive subject for a close ally, an ally that is incredibly important to the United States in terms of our operations in Iraq." he noted.
Seventy percent of America's air cargo goes through Turkey, along with 30 percent of the fuel. Ninety-five percent of the mine-resistant, ambush-protected heavy vehicles being flown into Iraq go through Turkey, as well, he said.
The issue has enormous implications for American soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines in Iraq and must be taken seriously, Gates concluded.
Browne told the press that he welcomed his American counterpart, noting that they speak regularly on the phone, but it's always good to meet face to face.
"The United Kingdom and the United States have common defense goals," Browne said. "Iraq and Afghanistan are the obvious ones," he said, but the two nations also cooperate on technology, meeting modern challenges and setting priorities.
"We've made significant progress in southeast Iraq," Browne said.
This has led British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to approve a plan to drawdown the number of British troops there to 2,500 by the end of the year. The U.S. and the U.K. have the same aspiration for Iraq, and that ultimately is to see Iraqi forces take over responsibility for their own security. The progress of U.S. forces in Anbar province has set the example, Browne added.
Afghanistan is a long-term commitment for both the United States and the United Kingdom, Browne said. It's in both nations' interest to help create a stable and secure environment there. Keys to that success and long-term progress are defeating the Taliban and ensuring reconstruction has an impact.
"Ultimately, politics is the answer," Browne said. Afghanistan must develop the government to deal with culture and with their issues. Our job is to give them the space to do that."