By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 9, 2008 - Meetings with NATO and troop-contributing nations making up the alliance's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan will help chart the way ahead in the troubled nation, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.
Gates is participating in a NATO defense ministers conference. Among the day's highlights was a ceremony in Kossuth Square to welcome home soldiers from Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovakia from service in Afghanistan. The 240 soldiers served under Hungarian command in the provincial reconstruction team at Pol-e-Khomri.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called the NATO operation in Afghanistan the largest and most challenging alliance operation ever.
"NATO soldiers are putting their own lives on the line to create a better future for the long-suffering Afghan population, and to ensure that the country will never again be a sanctuary for terrorists," he said during the ceremony. "That is not just a noble cause, it is also crucial to the security of our own nations and our own citizens. And that is why we – Hungary, its 25 allies in NATO, and a wide range of partner countries from all over the world – are determined to see this mission through. And we will."
Gates said troop-contributing nations clearly understand what is at stake in Afghanistan.
"There is a clear willingness on the part of allies to prolong their commitment to Afghanistan," he said during a news conference following a meeting with Georgian military leaders. "Several nations have announced increased troop levels in Afghanistan as well as extending their commitment."
More than 30,000 non-U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, and 20,600 U.S. personnel serve in ISAF. The number of non-U.S. forces has increased by 10,000 since this time last year.
The participating nations understand Afghanistan poses significant challenges, and that not all can be solved by military force, Gates said. The effort in Afghanistan needs more coordination among civilian economic development, reconstruction efforts and security efforts, he noted.
"We need to have the Afghans in the lead," he said. "There is broad support for expanding the Afghan National Army and doing that as quickly as possible."
The Afghan Army is set to grow to 134,000 soldiers. It now has about 70,000 troops, a number projected to grow to 90,000 by the end of the year. In Macedonia yesterday, Gates urged southeastern European nations to consider sending military trainers to Afghanistan.
Gates said he will provide information from an Afghanistan strategy review under way in Washington. "We will be sharing that with our allies, but I think we have a pretty good idea of the problems that we have to address," he said.
"I don't think anyone doubts that this is a long-term endeavor, but the key is the Afghans need to be in the lead, be in the forefront, and us helping them as much as possible," he said. "I think there is broad support in the alliance for moving forward and meeting these challenges and overcoming them."
Gates also said he wants NATO to confront drug lords in Afghanistan. "Part of the problem we face is the Taliban makes between $60 million and $80 million a year from the drug trafficking," he said. "It is not only corrosive to good governance, it also directly funds the people that are killing Afghans, Americans and all our coalition partners."
No one is interested in a crop eradication program or a program that will affect individual farmers, Gates said. Opium from poppies still constitutes the bulk of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. This year saw a rise in poppy cultivation and a record crop, according to State Department statistics.
Poppy is a popular cash crop in Afghanistan because it doesn't spoil and is easily transportable in a nation of poor or nonexistent roads. Six provinces produce almost all of the opium in the country, with Helmand province in the south leading the way.
"I don't think anyone in the alliance is interested in eradicating crops or doing things that affect individual farmers," Gates said, "but if we have the opportunity to go after drug lords and drug laboratories – to interrupt this flow of cash to the Taliban -- it seems like a legitimate security endeavor."