By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
March 3, 2009 - Determining a timetable for withdrawing U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan right now is "impossible," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today. "We would all like to have a situation in which our mission in Afghanistan has been completed and we can bring our troops home," Gates told reporters during a joint news conference with French Defense Minister Herve Morin at the Pentagon. "I do not see that happening any time in the near future. And I think it's impossible to put a date on when you might firmly say all the troops are coming out."
The road to sovereignty in Afghanistan requires short-term goals with a means to measure success for the way forward, Gates said.
"I think that the objectives that we have and milestones, in terms of measuring achievement of those objectives, is really a principal focus of the strategy review that is under way on the American side, and where we have been consulting with our partners," Gates said. "And I think we will have a much better idea of the way forward, at least as far as the United States is concerned, when that review is complete."
In a lunch meeting today between the two defense leaders, both agreed that setting milestones to define clear goals will allow Afghans to view their progress and manage their own country.
One dynamic, which Gates repeatedly has called for and termed an important factor for such success there, is additional civilian support, such as that provided by provincial reconstruction teams. He often encourages NATO and coalition partners to consider dispatching more civilian experts to Afghanistan, he said.
"This is an area where we have very limited additional capacity in the United States," Gates said, recalling a recent NATO defense leaders meeting in Krakow, Poland. "And so my focus at Krakow for all of our partners was really more on what could be done in terms of civilian capacity, whether to help governance or police training or economic development and so on."
Though it does not operate any PRTs in Afghanistan, France maintains one of the larger footprints of NATO forces there, with more than 3,000 troops. Those numbers include an additional 1,000 combat troops and another 300 trainers for Afghan forces that France has sent to Afghanistan over the past 18 months.
"There's no other European country that made such an effort over the course of the past 18 months," Morin said through a translator, "and so we feel that we have already done part of our job, if you will. As far as increasing civilian means, it is an avenue that the European Union should explore."
Morin said the French efforts are "perfectly in line with the thinking of the American administration" and that although French forces do not expect to be in Afghanistan "forever," they will stay as long as they're needed.
About 38,000 American troops are currently serving in Afghanistan with an additional 17,000 ordered by President Barack Obama last month scheduled to arrive there this spring. Another 19,000 NATO troops representing 41 different nations also are there.