By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
March 31, 2008 - On his second stopover en route to the NATO summit conference in Bucharest, Romania, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited here today to thank a country he called a steadfast ally. "This is an ally who, in my opinion, is really punching above its weight, and I want to visit and basically thank them for that," Gates said before landing in the country.
It has been 10 years since a U.S. defense secretary has visited the country, Gates noted. "I thought maybe it was time for a visit," he said.
Tonight Gates will dine with the Danish Defense Commission, the country's government agency charged with developing a five-year plan for the Danish defense, said a U.S. defense official speaking on background during the flight.
Tomorrow, Gates meets with the Danish minister of defense and the country's chief of defense, and also will meet some Danish troops who have just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, the official said. Later, Gates will meet with both the prime minister and the foreign minister.
The Danes have about 630 troops in Afghanistan, with most in the south working with British troops. "The Danes have played an important and tough role in Afghanistan," Gates said.
In Iraq, they have about 40 personnel at various training centers, but no combat forces. The Danes have about 300 troops in Kosovo.
Earlier in the day, Gates stopped by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, in Mons, Belgium, for a briefing by NATO's top commander, Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, on the NATO International Security Assistance Force's efforts in Afghanistan and the work of the alliance's Kosovo Force.
"I wanted to come by and get an update before Bucharest on ISAF and Kosovo as seen from the vantage point from General Craddock and his senior staff," Gates said.
While there, Gates also was briefed on NATO restructuring proposals that are under way. Gates called the meeting a "pretty broad brief."
The defense secretary said he left the briefings today with a new respect for the NATO reserve force. He admitted to having been "somewhat skeptical" of the force, which would require more contributions for training and readiness from NATO members already stretched thin. Gates said the force has proven useful for smaller countries to push force modernization, and that many member nations gain experience in joint operations they would not get otherwise.
Still, Gates was not optimistic that the force can reach its requested 25,000-troop requirement.
"I think that it probably will not reach its full potential as long as so many nations are engaged as heavily as we are in Afghanistan, and for us in Iraq," Gates said. "But I think it serves a very worthwhile purpose, and I'm much more supportive of it now than I was when I went in."
Tomorrow, Gates leaves for Bucharest to attend the NATO summit conference. Gate said he expects some countries to use the summit as a platform to announce troop increases in Afghanistan.
"I would expect that there will be some announcements. I think the prospects are good for a good, strong, unanimous statement by the alliance on Afghanistan and why we're there," Gates said.
Still, Gates said he would be "surprised" if NATO was able to deliver all of the troops the alliance says it needs in the country. A senior NATO official speaking on background said that the alliance needs at least three more infantry or maneuver battalions worth of troops. More than 3,000 U.S. Marines are on tap to arrive there in April. About 1,000 will be used as trainers, and the remainder will head for the embattled southern areas.
In all, 70 percent of the violence in Afghanistan happens in a southern swath that accounts for only 10 percent of the country's area and about 6 percent of its population, according to NATO statistics. Seventeen NATO nations have forces in the south, totaling 18,000 troops, the NATO official said.
In Iraq, Gates said, the recent offensive ordered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against Shiite militias to gain control of Basra was inevitable, given the criminal element in the region.
"We've all known that at some point the situation in Basra was going to have to be dealt with," Gates said. "It is the economic lifeline of the country, and to have it under the control of a bunch of thugs and gangs and militias over the long term is unacceptable.
"All of us in the government were pleased to see Prime Minister Maliki be willing to take this on and take the initiative and go down there himself with Iraqi forces to try and resolve the issue," Gates said. "We obviously are hopeful that he will achieve most of his objectives, and I think at the same time everybody is eager to see calm return as well."
The U.S. military has been providing overwatch support, such as air support and providing backup for the Iraqi security forces, but has not been leading the fight, Gates said.