By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 11, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today pledged more resources to top commanders in southern Afghanistan for what he said likely will be a protracted fight. Gates met with Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, for an update on progress and to get the general's input on the way ahead. The secretary also met with deputy commanders from other nations based in the region.
Gates said the challenges in the region are marked with violence fueled by extremists and a booming drug trade. But, he promised, the alliance is up to the task.
"We are all here ... to help the Afghan people and government in their struggle for peace and prosperity," Gates told reporters. "This is, after all, their country, their fight, and their future."
Gates said the mission will expand significantly, with more resources and troops coming from the international community and plans in progress to nearly double the size of Afghanistan's Army while helping to develop governance and a stable economy.
The Afghan National Army is nearing 80,000 troops, and the Afghan National Police has almost 82,000 officers. The army is expected to grow to 134,000 in the next four years, while the police officer force has nearly reached its intended cap. Gates and McKiernan said the internationally mandated cap needs to be removed and the Police force expanded.
"This nation has seen too much war in the last decades," Gates said. "Only together can we defeat the enemies of Afghanistan and secure the lasting peace that the people of Afghanistan deserve."
Gates stopped short of promising a specific number of troops from the United States, besides the brigade combat team slated for deployment in January. But, Gates said, President-elect Barack Obama has said he wants more troops and resources sent to Afghanistan. Gates said he hopes to send two more brigades here by late spring, but that Obama will make that decision based on recommendations by his top military leaders after he takes office.
McKiernan estimates he needs as many as 20,000 more troops here, including more intelligence and reconnaissance assets, aviation, engineers and military Police. Commanders say they need the extra troops to reach out to remote villages and rural areas.
McKiernan has asked for three ground-maneuver brigades in addition to the one slated to deploy here in January, whether they be U.S. Army or Marines. He said he needs the troops "sooner than later," as his force is readying for upcoming Afghan national elections next year and is pushing hard against the insurgency in remote areas.
The general said he does not think the insurgency is getting stronger, despite increased violence.
"I don't see the insurgency getting stronger, and I see the vast majority of people who live in Afghanistan continuing to reject what the Taliban brings," he said. "They don't want what the Taliban brings."
McKiernan said the increased violence is a result of his forces routing insurgents from new areas.
"We're operating and extending security into areas of this country that we weren't in a year ago, and with that is going to come contact with insurgent or criminal groups," he explained.
Also, he said, insurgents and criminal groups have shifted their tactics away from large groups attacking large targets. They now operate in smaller, more asymmetric and complex attacks against vulnerable targets such as convoys, government agencies and Police.
Still, Afghan security forces are becoming more capable, which is key to the long-term security of the area, McKiernan said. His forces are starting to work in partnership with the Afghan forces, including them at the start of the planning, and striking mutually agreed-upon targets.
"They know this country. They know the terrain. They know the population. They know the enemy far better than we do," McKiernan said.
Part of the additional forces requested will be used to mentor the Afghan army and police, living and operating with them side by side to help them become more capable so they can take the lead in Afghan security, McKiernan said. But although he said he wants to see the Afghan forces grow over the next four years, he cautioned against moving too fast.
"We want to go as fast as we can; this country needs its own security forces," he said. "But you don't want to go too fast that you end up building an army that's not the right Army."
And, McKiernan said, increased security alone will not be the single factor in paving the way to a brighter future for the impoverished country that has been pummeled by war for three decades.
"The security line of operation cannot work without governance and without development," he said. "They all have to work together for comprehensive effects to defeat this insurgency and bring a better future for Afghanistan."