By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 11, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates touched down here today with plans to visit troops and meet with senior leaders to discuss the way ahead for U.S. military operations in the country. He will meet today with Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and with commanders in the country's southern region.
As the U.S. military role in Iraq begins to draw down, the war is expected to be a key focus of the next administration. In an in-flight interview, Gates told reporters he wants to send two more brigade combat teams to Afghanistan by summer in addition to one brigade already slated to deploy in January.
Commanders on the ground have estimated they will need as many as 20,000 more troops, along with more intelligence and reconnaissance assets and more helicopters. Commanders say they need the extra troops to reach out to remote villages and rural areas. About 80 percent of the country, which is slightly smaller than Texas, is rural.
But, Gates said, additional forces are not necessarily the single answer to the problems plaguing security efforts, and that he would like to see more emphasis on building the Afghan Army and putting it in the forefront of operations in the country.
"It is very important for the Afghans to be up front in this struggle. This is their country, their fight, and their future," Gates said. "We have to do a better job of working with the Afghans and listening to what they have to say, incorporating that into our planning, and ensuring that they are out front -- that this is their fight, and that we're there to help them."
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 by 2014, while the Police force has reached its intended cap. Gates said a "course correction" is needed toward more of a partnership between the two countries.
"I think there's a concern on the part of some of the Afghans that we sort of tell them what we're going to do, instead of taking proposals to them and getting their input and then working out with them what we're going to do, so it's a real partnership," Gates said. "So I think we need to be more sensitive about that."
Thirteen ANA kandaks, or battalions, and three headquarters units are deemed fully capable of conducting independent operations at the battalion level. Those units gradually are taking over security responsibilities in their regions. Overall, the Afghan National Army leads more than half of the joint military operations, according to military reports.
In the interview, Gates referenced the Soviet Union's inability to secure the region after its December 1979 invasion because the country rejected its communistic rule. Afghan fighters made it almost impossible for the Soviets to maintain a system of local government outside major urban centers.
"The history of foreign military forces in Afghanistan, when they have been regarded by the Afghan people as there for their own interests and as occupiers, has not been a happy one," Gates said. "The Soviets couldn't win in Afghanistan with 120,000 troops, and they clearly didn't care about civilian casualties. So I think we just have to think about the longer term in this.
"I think we're going to be in this struggle for quite a long time, and I think we have to make sure we've got some of the basics right," Gates said.
Part of that is figuring how many foreign fighters should be on the ground here, he said. "I think that still is an unanswered question, and may well be for some period of time," said he acknowledged.
A town-hall session today will be the secretary's first with troops in Afghanistan. Regional Command South has the largest ISAF presence of the five regional commands here, with about 24,000 troops.