By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 7, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he was encouraged by his discussions on Afghanistan with NATO defense ministers during meetings here today. Gates is attending NATO's informal defense ministerial conference. The meeting will help set the stage for NATO's summit of heads of state in Bucharest, Romania, in April.
The secretary said he emphasized to the defense ministers that the U.S. decision to send 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan is a one-time measure. The deployment is "intended to help prevent any surge of violence in the spring," the secretary said. The move is in the same spirit as an American troop plus-up in Afghanistan last year, he explained. "That move was to ensure that the spring offensive was NATO's offensive," Gates said. "We are doing that again."
The deployment is a concrete example of America's commitment to Afghanistan and is intended to reinforce security gains in the country over the past year, the secretary said.
"I called on the other allies to make further commitments to the mission, to do what they could to meet unmet needs as articulated by the commanders out there and to consider other, more creative ways, that they may be able to contribute," he said.
Gates echoed NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who spoke to the media just before him, about the progress the alliance is making in Afghanistan. Both men said there has been significant progress in security, economic development, education and more. The secretary general said that under the Taliban only a million children -- all boys -- went to school. Today, 7 million Afghan children, including 2 million girls, go to school. The Taliban provided 8 percent of the people some sort of health care; today, 80 percent of Afghans receive some form of health care, he added. Under NATO, more than 4,000 kilometers of roads have been built or maintained.
Both men said the alliance needs to strengthen and better coordinate civil-military interfaces, particularly in governance and economic activities.
The defense ministers discussed Canada's demand for additional troops for Regional Command South in Afghanistan. Canada wants to extend its military commitment in the nation, but will do so only if NATO countries contribute 1,000 extra troops.
Gates said it would be a setback to NATO efforts in Afghanistan if Canada left.
"In a way, Canada has caused the alliance to face up to this differential between those like Canada, Australia, Britain, the Dutch (and) the Danes, who are fighting and have taken casualties, as opposed to some of those who are in less violent areas and not at such risks," Gates said. "I think people take the concerns expressed by the Canadians very seriously, and my hope is that the need the Canadians have identified will be satisfied."
The secretary said he believes that all of the alliance's defense ministers understand the nature of the military problem, but acknowledged that political considerations are at play.
"My view is the governments here in Europe get it," Gates said. "They understand the importance of Afghanistan. But many are in minority governments, they are in coalitions, and they just aren't able to do certain kinds of things. We understand that."
But nations can contribute in other ways. "Let's think a little bit more creatively, and if somebody can't send combat soldiers into a certain area just because of the politics at home, then perhaps they could pay or provide helicopters for somebody who could," he said. "There are different ways to resolve this problem, and we just need to be creative about it to look at the opportunities there."
The defense ministers also discussed the situation in Kosovo. The NATO Kosovo Force remains strong and vigilant as the country moves toward settlement of final status issues. Gates and Scheffer said U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244 on Kosovo will continue to hold sway, no matter what the Kosovars decide. Scheffer said the NATO force will continue to provide protection for all ethnic groups in the country.
Further talks tomorrow will address NATO transformation, NATO-Russia relations and missile defense.