By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 21, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates expressed confidence today that more troops being sent to Afghanistan's Regional Command South will be sufficient to shore up security for Afghanistan's elections in late September. Gates, speaking at a joint conference with his counterparts whose countries provide 90 percent of the troops to RC-South, declared a successful presidential election one of the most important objectives in Afghanistan in the upcoming year.
The secretary spent the day here at a former Canadian military base conferring with defense ministers from Canada, Australia, Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands, Romania and the United Kingdom about the situation in Afghanistan.
Topics covered a broad range of issues, including a shared interest in "surging as many forces as we can" to provide security for the elections, Gates told reporters. "All of us agree that one of our most important, and maybe the most important, objective for us in 2009 in Afghanistan is a successful election," Gates said.
The secretary described U.S. plans to increase its troop commitment, currently about 31,000, with just under half assigned to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
A heavy battalion of about 1,800 Marines, many of them from 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, has already deployed, he said. In addition, the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team will start arriving in Afghanistan in January for duty in Regional Command East.
No decisions have yet been made about the timetable for providing the three additional brigade combat teams and aviation assets requested by ISAF Commander Army Gen. David McKiernan. However, Gates said he expects at least some of those troops, once committed, to be sent to southern Afghanistan.
"We would like to get some of those additional brigade combat teams into Afghanistan before the election so they can make a contribution to greater security," he said. "But we are still working on that and we have not made any final decisions about the timing."
Decisions also need to be reached about "how they can best reinforce our allies who are already in some of these provinces [and] how they will interface with and work with the Afghan forces," he said.
Another factor, he said, is how these troops will merge their efforts with civil efforts already under way.
As those details are worked out, Gates expressed confidence that the forces will be in place to ensure a smooth election.
"I think that the prospects for being able to have these elections successfully are good," he said. "I think that the security situation will be under enough control to allow the election to take place."
Gates called the 20,000-troop increase in Afghanistan over the past 18 months by the United States and its allies and partners an important step in confronting what he conceded are "some significant challenges."
Insurgents have found a sanctuary in the western border area, and new actors have joined the effort over the past two years, causing violence to spike, he said.
But Gates emphasized that the situation in Afghanistan isn't nearly as bad as some characterize it. The Taliban holds no land in Afghanistan, and loses every time it comes into contact with coalition forces, he said. "And so the notion that things are out of control in Afghanistan or that we are sliding toward a disaster, I think, is far too pessimistic," he said.
As ISAF beefs up its numbers, Gates said it will be watching the Afghans to ensure they're moving forward as well. "We all recognize the need for the Afghan government, with our help, to demonstrate some progress over the course of 2009," he said.
"We need to remember that this is Afghanistan's war against a threat to a freely elected Afghan government," he told reporters on the return flight to Washington. "We are there to help them take on that threat. This is not our war, necessarily."
While the United States doesn't want the Taliban, al Qaeda or other insurgents to regain a foothold in Afghanistan, "at the end of the day, it has got to be Afghanistan's war for its own people," Gates said.
"So I think the key is, 'How do we reverse the trends in the last couple years or so, in terms of rising violence, and create a better security environment in which economic development [and] civic development can take place?'" he said.
Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay, who hosted the meeting, said the increased troop presence in the volatile RC-South region will have a big impact on reconstruction and development efforts.
Asked directly if the U.S. surge means Canada will be able to accelerate its own troop drawdown in Afghanistan, MacKay gave an unqualified "no."
"This is about reinforcement, not replacement," he said. "This is about continuing in a joint UN-backed, NATO-led effort."
MacKay reiterated the call for more nations to contribute to the mission, emphasizing that those supporting RC-South are carrying "a disproportionate share of the load" there. He encouraged other NATO countries to "examine their ability to do more," whether providing troops on the ground, equipment support, or help with development programs.
"Other countries should be under no illusion," MacKay said. "We are still asking for them to pick up the slack and share the burden."