By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 11, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates stopped briefly here today on his way to Afghanistan, but took time in a town-hall session to talk with a few hundred airmen and soldiers stationed at this dusty, remote way station. This austere outpost is a main air hub into Afghanistan, providing aerial refueling, combat airdrops, medical evacuation and strategic airlift. This year, nearly 120,000 people have passed through the base.
Gates had only a few minutes to speak, but said he wanted to personally thank the troops for their efforts.
"Without you, operations in the theater would simply grind to a halt," Gates told them. "Without you and your exceptional support of our American troops and coalition partners in Afghanistan, we could not be successful."
The air base here is home to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing. About 1,000 military personnel from the United States, Spain and France are assigned to the wing, along with 650 U.S. and host-nation contractor personnel.
Gates told the group that as the scope and size of operations change in Iraq, the base should expect that its mission would grow as well.
While any change in mission in Afghanistan will be decided by the next commander in chief, Gates said, there is consensus that more troops are needed to provide security and train Afghan forces.
"Success in Afghanistan will not come easily or quickly. Nor will success come through military means alone," Gates said. "There will also need to be a substantial plus-up in areas such as infrastructure, reconstruction, economic development and governance. But I believe we can succeed. We will succeed."
Gates told those gathered in the makeshift recreation hall that it was their service, and that of others in the military, that compelled him to stay in his post when asked by President-elect Barack Obama.
"There were a lot of reasons to accept President-elect Obama's request to stay on as secretary of defense," he said, "but no more reason was more compelling to me than the fact that if hundreds and thousands of young Americans like you all are doing your duty without fail and without complaint, then I really had no choice but to do likewise."