By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 18, 2008 - The situation in Afghanistan is complicated, and the United States and its NATO allies and other partners continually assess the strategy in the country, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today. Gates, in London for a NATO meeting, spoke to British and American reporters. He arrived here yesterday after visits to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gates called the situation in Afghanistan dynamic and complicated. He said that while the northern and western parts of the country pose no significant challenges, the American-led Regional Command East area was under control a year ago, but has seen a significant rise in insurgent violence. In the Regional Command South area, insurgent violence has been high for several years.
"There is no question that we face a number of challenges in the south, and increasing challenges in the east," Gates said. While the Taliban remains the primary enemy, other groups are affiliating with them, he added.
NATO, U.S. and Afghan forces face foreign fighters, al-Qaida, the Hakkani network, Gulbadeen Hekmatiar's terror group and others. "All these guys are kind of like a syndicate operating together," he said. "But it's not a centrally controlled Taliban insurgency against the government. It's a number of different challenges against the government."
Gates said violence is rising because of the syndicate and because of the uncertainty in neighboring Pakistan. Earlier this year, Pakistan tried to sign peace deals with the various tribes along the border with Afghanistan. This relieved all the military pressure on insurgent groups and gave them safe havens inside Pakistan and virtually free access to Afghanistan.
The new Pakistani government is beginning to understand the threat these insurgents pose to them, and the Pakistani military is once again applying pressure along the border, Gates said.
"As the Pakistani military have once again increased military activity, we're seeing a decrease in the number of people coming across the border," he said.
He said the Pakistani movements are still tentative. "We need to stay in very close contact with the Pakistanis in terms of how we address this common threat," he said. He said Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, helps the United States foster this on-going dialogue and take into consideration Pakistani concerns.
But military action is only part of the equation in Afghanistan, Gates told reporters. "Clearly, the problem that is a continuing challenge is governance and corruption fueled by the narcotics trade," Gates said. The country, one of the poorest in the world, is having difficulty fostering economic development.
Some of the lessons the coalition learned in Iraq can be applied in Afghanistan, Gates said. To be successful, the coalition must establish security as a precondition for economic development and good governance. "That means more forces," he said.
"We are looking at the strategy in Afghanistan," he said. "We are taking a close look at it. I don't know if the results will be a significant change in strategy or just some adjustments.
"I think you have an overall approach, an overall strategy, but you adjust it continually based on the circumstances," he continued. "We did that in Iraq; we made a change in strategy in Iraq, and we are going to continue to look at the situation in Afghanistan."
As part of a plan to streamline the U.S. chain of command in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force, has been nominated to serve also as commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, Gates said.
The missions of the two forces will not merge – Americans operating under Operation Enduring Freedom will continue – but they will be better coordinated, Gates said. Special operations forces in Afghanistan will not be part of the command.
"The whole training mission under Combined Security Assistance Transition Command Afghanistan for the Afghan National Army is actually subordinate to the commander of Central Command," Gates said. "General McKiernan has no control over that.
"At the same time, much of what that training mission is doing is out in the field in operational activity," he continued. "There's a major line of activity in Afghanistan that neither the current U.S. commander nor General McKiernan have any authority over. What we're trying to establish is better unity of command of what the U.S. is doing so that we can better coordinate our work."
Gates will bring up counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan during his NATO meetings, he said. "The story is not a good one, but there is a positive side," he said.
Most of the narcotics problem in Afghanistan is centered in seven southern provinces, which produce about 98 percent of the poppies. "There are several provinces where poppy growth has been driven down to near zero, thanks principally to good governance and strong governors," Gates said. A recent United Nations report shows that acreage under poppy cultivation has dropped more than 19 percent the past year, from 193,000 hectares to 157,000, he noted.
Still, those seven provinces produce more than enough opium for the entire world market. "One of the issues the alliance needs to address is the role we play in counternarcotics," he said. "U.S. forces do not have a counternarcotics mission. But if we or ISAF have the opportunity to take out drug labs or to ... take action against drug lords or kingpins, that's an opportunity," given how tied in opium is with other problems in Afghanistan.
In 2003, al-Qaida declared Iraq as the central front in their war on the United States, Gates pointed out. "The defeats they suffered and setbacks they have suffered in Iraq have not eliminated the threat in Iraq, but have significantly reduced it," he said. "The safe havens that al-Qaida has in the western part of Pakistan are a very real concern for the United States, and is a problem that we have talked at length with the Pakistanis about with regard to the U.S. homeland and the consequences if an attack should erupt out of there."
Finishing the job in Iraq is important, Gates said. "But if there is a threat to the U.S. homeland posed by al-Qaida at this point, the focal point is probably in the safe havens where al-Qaida is located," he said.