By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 8, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he left a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Vilnius, Lithuania, today with the impression "that a number of allies are considering what more they might be able to do" to increase troops and support to the mission in Afghanistan. The secretary spoke to reporters aboard the aircraft taking him here for the 44th Munich Conference on Security Policy. He said he will use the pulpit offered by the conference to discuss the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan and why it is important to Europe.
More than 45,000 international troops are serving with ISAF in Afghanistan. About 15,000 are U.S. servicemembers, and an additional 3,200 Marines will move into the country beginning in March.
NATO assumed the security mission in the country in October 2006. Since then, discussions about filling the ISAF commander's requirements have taken place largely behind the scenes, Gates said.
"It seems to me that ... there would be value in surfacing this dialogue on these issues to have a more open conversation about the importance of Afghanistan to the security of both the United States and Europe," he said.
The secretary said he wants to draw European people's attention to NATO's role in Afghanistan in an effort to explain why their security is tied to success there, and what success or failure in Afghanistan would mean to the future of NATO.
Although 40 nations -- including all 26 NATO countries -- have troops serving in ISAF, some troop requirements remain unmet in Afghanistan. NATO countries are doing what they've said they'd do, but those commitments fall short of what's needed, the secretary explained.
"They are meeting their commitment," Gates said. "I think I heard the (NATO supreme allied commander for Europe) say there is not a country that has not met the commitment that it has made. The problem is the alliance has not fulfilled all the requirements that the commander has put forward," the secretary said.
Gates told reporters a long-term NATO strategy paper on Afghanistan will be presented to the alliance's heads of state in Romania during the Bucharest Summit in April.
"The reason I suggested a strategy paper that looks out three to five years is because I think we need to lift our sights," he said. "I think there is too much focus on where will we be in 2008 or 2009. The reality is this is a long-term project, and Afghanistan is going to need help for a long time.
"As an example," he continued, "compare and contrast that Iraq has a budget of $50 billion per year. The total government revenues for Afghanistan this year is expected to be, optimistically, $675 million."
Afghanistan is going to need help in establishing security, economic development and quality of life for years to come, Gates said.
"We obviously would like to see this transition from a mission that has a very large security component to a mission that becomes almost exclusively economic development and humanitarian assistance," he said. "But you can't do those things without a secure environment."
Still, as work continues on the security front, economic progress and humanitarian assistance also need to go forward, the secretary said.
I think you can walk and chew gum at the same time," he said. "I think you have to do both. I think the alliance is absolutely unified in the hope that we can see the security component of this under better control and move more toward the civil side."
One way to help move forward is to appoint a civilian ambassador to help coordinate international and nongovernmental aid to Afghanistan. It's taken a long time to appoint the envoy "because of the difficulty of figuring out who the right person would be and then getting everyone to agree that that is the right person. Then there was the discussion of which hat would he wear: A NATO hat? A European Union hat? A United Nations hat? All three?" Gates said.
The delay has allowed Afghan and international officials to figure out the terms of reference for the job. "I think we've got all that done now," Gates said. "And now we really need to move out and get this person identified and then appointed."
Gates said it doesn't matter to him whether the envoy is appointed by the United Nations, the European Union or NATO. "I don't care," he said, "whatever gets it done fast."
Gates also discussed reports that France may punch up its presence in Afghanistan.
"France is a very serious military power. For France to make a commitment would be a very important step," he said. "I'm not sure whether the government of France has made a decision on what to do. I would just say that if they decided to make that kind of contribution, first it would be most welcome, and I think it would send a good signal about their participation in this NATO mission and about the future."