By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 19, 2009 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he is encouraged by discussions with NATO allies here today on the way forward in Afghanistan. "There was a lot of focus on the run-up to the Afghan election in August and the importance of added security," Gates told traveling and international press following the beginning of the NATO defense ministers meeting.
At the meeting, Germany committed forces to help with security in Afghanistan as the election approaches.
"We welcome the commitment of additional German forces for the upcoming Afghan national elections," Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said. "For those contests to be credible, voter turnout must be robust and representative, and improving the security situation is the key to making that happen. We encourage other nations to do as we and the Germans have now done and deploy more troops before Afghans go to the polls later this year."
The need for more resources on the civilian side of operations in Afghanistan also was discussed.
The ministers heard from Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and United Nations Special Representative for Afghanistan Kai Eide. Gates said it was important to hear from the Afghans, "because it's fundamentally their fight, and we are helping them. The more we see them in the lead, the better it is."
Gates said he spoke with leaders about the review of U.S. Afghan policy that's under way and stressed the inclusiveness of that strategy.
"There will be Afghan and Pakistani teams coming to the U.S. to work with us on it," he said. Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, will meet with NATO allies in Brussels.
Obama's recent decision to send more U.S. troops to the country will put resources in place to implement the strategy. In the past, coalition troops have not had the manpower to hold areas after clearing out the Taliban and affiliated terror groups, Gates said.
"What we are doing with this troop increase ... is to have a more or less continuing presence with our Afghan partners ... to bring security to the population," he said. "Without that kind of security, economic development is very difficult."
Safe havens in Pakistan have contributed to the increase in violence in Afghanistan. Gates praised the Pakistani military and Frontier Corps, a federal paramilitary force, for re-entering the fray in the tribal areas.
The secretary said all of the ministers expressed strong support for training Afghan security forces. All view the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police as the institutions that will lead the fight.
"Particularly with respect to the police, more than in the past, there was an expression of the importance of helping to train and expand the police," Gates said.
The secretary stressed the importance of civilian contributions to Afghanistan. Governance is key, and the secretary wants aid to local, district and provincial governments as well as the national government.
"The last thing the Afghans want is for us in some way to re-create warlords," he said. "The question is, How can you engage the local population in defense?"
Gates also spoke of the Kyrgyzstan parliament's vote today to close Manas Air Base, an important logistics hub for the effort in Afghanistan. "Manas is important, but it is not irreplaceable," the secretary said. "We are going to continue to work with the Kyrgyz. We [have] not resigned ourselves to this being the last word."
U.S. planners have looked at alternatives to the base. "Speaking for myself, since the Department of Defense will have to pay the bill, I think we are prepared to look at the fees and see if there is justification for a somewhat larger payment, but we're not going to be ridiculous about it."
He said he hopes to "walk this back" with Kyrgyz leaders and continue the arrangement. "Like I said, it's an important base, but not so important that we will waste taxpayer dollars," he said.
The global economic crisis colors all deliberations, "but there was less mention of that today than I expected," Gates said.
"There have been a few people who have said they are not cutting back on their commitment, but they are not increasing their commitment as much as they would like because of budgetary pressures."
Many NATO defense ministries are taking significant budget cuts, but "by inference, people aren't using the economic crisis as an excuse to cut back on their contributions or to walk away from their commitments to Afghanistan," Gates said.