By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 20, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here today to encourage a more regional approach to the mission in Afghanistan's Regional Command South during a two-day meeting of defense ministers from nations contributing the lion's share of forces there. The meeting, at Canadian Forces Base Greenwood, will provide an opportunity for the eight ministers to focus on the situation in Regional Command South and their strategy for stabilizing that volatile area, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters yesterday.
In addition to the United States and Canada, the participants represent Australia, Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands, Romania and the United Kingdom. Collectively, they contribute about 90 percent of RC-South's approximately 18,000 troops.
The ministers last met in June in Brussels, Belgium.
Five sessions during the next two days will focus on two main themes: generating a regional instead of a provincial approach in RC-South and increasing support for the Afghan national security forces, a senior defense official traveling with Gates told reporters.
In addition to asking for contributions to a trust find to sustain the security forces, Gates is expected to reiterate his request for more embedded trainers, the official said.
"All of the countries with troops in RC-South are truly engaged in the fight," the official said. "And I think the secretary welcomes the chance to sit down with them and talk to them about their observations.
"We think this is a real opportunity to regionalize the approach to RC-South," he said. "The mechanics of how we are set up is obviously very provincial," citing initiatives to expand that focus to the entire region.
That's critical, he said, because tackling the effort on a province-by-province basis simply doesn't work against an enemy that doesn't recognize or respect those borders.
Working together regionally will make RC-South more effective in countering weapons and drug trafficking and enemy movements. The regional approach will also promote civil-military coordination that Gates considers key to success in Afghanistan, the official said.
The agenda will also includes discussions on RC-South's evolution and what other changes may be needed as well as challenges along the Pakistan border area, although counternarcotics initiatives also are likely to be raised, he said.
Yesterday, Morrell called this week's session particularly important since the Dutch assumed command of the region Nov. 1. International Security Assistance Force Commander Gen. David McKiernan presided over the ceremony in which Canadian Maj. Gen. Marc Lessard passed command responsibility to Dutch Maj. Gen. Mart de Kruif.
The change of command marked the beginning of 12-month commands in RC-South.
During the change of command ceremony, Lessard noted the challenges ISAF faces in the region. "While the enemy facing us is resilient, ruthless and has little concern for the civilian population, there can be no doubt that the common determination and perseverance demonstrated by the [Afghan government], [Afghan National Security Forces] and ISAF will ensure that we will continue achieving progress and success for the people of Afghanistan," he said.
Also at the ceremony, DeKruif expressed confidence as Afghan security forces increase in numbers and capabilities and more coalition forces deploy into Afghanistan.
"I am very proud to command such fine men and women from different countries and cultures but united in their devotion to the operation," he said. "It is their professionalism, courage, endeavour and determination, which, together with our Afghan partners, will bring success."
This week's session comes just days after McKiernan lamented the shortage of coalition troops in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan.
"Quite frankly, we do not have enough military forces there – international, Afghan army, Afghan police, border police – to have sufficient presence in southern Afghanistan to provide for adequate security for the people," McKiernan said at the Atlantic Council of the United States' Commanders Series.
McKiernan expressed hope that additional U.S. forces on the way would help fill this gap. "We have an additional infantry brigade that's been committed to Afghanistan and will be there in January," he said. "In addition to that, I've asked for, over time, three additional ground brigades and other enablers, to include aviation and [intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance] and logistics and so forth."
McKiernan said he was "cautiously optimistic" about increasing coordination among coalition forces, Afghan national forces and Pakistanti forces in counterinsurgency efforts and outlined a three-part formula for defining success in Afghanistan. These, he said, include a sense of security and freedom of movement for Afghan civilians, a trustworthy government without corruption and the start of progress in developmental standards for the future.
Calling himself a "glass is half-full commander in Afghanistan," McKiernan said progress is taking place on all three fronts, but not as quickly as hoped. "The people in Afghanistan do not feel secure in many areas in the south and the east. They don't feel like they have freedom of movement. They are dissatisfied with their government," he said.
"But on the other hand, the vast majority of the people in Afghanistan do not support the Taliban, they do not wish the Taliban to re-emerge in power in Afghanistan. And they accept the presence of foreign forces on their soil to help fight for their security.... So the glass is half-full."