By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
May 6, 2009 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here today for a surprise visit "to get a sense from the ground level" about how operations are going in Afghanistan. Gates, who traveled here after visits to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, told reporters he wanted to get a firsthand look at the evolving situation here in light of a new policy, new strategy, new U.S. ambassador and influx of additional U.S. troops.
Speaking to reporters before taking off from Saudi Arabia, Gates said he'll spend most of his visit in Afghanistan not in government conference rooms, but with troops in the field.
"I just want to go out and see for myself how they are doing," he said. "I ... want to get a sense from the ground level of what the needs are, what the challenges are, what the solutions to some of the problems are from people who -- it has been my experience -- are more likely to have the solutions than some of the folks back in Washington."
Gates said he plans to ask troops directly: "What do you need out here that you are not getting?"
"I just want to keep the focus on what I have been talking about for months -- and that is, what do we need to do to get the equipment and the support to the troops in the field so that they can be successful and come home safely?" he said.
He'll check out progress in getting the infrastructure ready to accommodate additional combat and support troops, and find out how the new suspensions on mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles being dispatched here are working out, and if more MRAPs are needed.
He said he'll also look into progress in ramping up medevac capabilities so they're more in line with those available for U.S. troops in Iraq. Gates ordered about a dozen additional helicopters to Afghanistan, as well as additional field hospitals, to ensure wounded troops are able to receive advanced care within the so-called "golden hour" after they're injured.
Troops who are treated at well-equipped medical facilities within the first 60 minutes of being wounded are far more likely to survive, medical officials report. However, Gates complained during congressional testimony in January, the standard in Afghanistan was closer to two hours.
Though an additional combat aviation brigade to arrive in Afghanistan also will increase medevac capability, Gates said, he will ask during his visit if that will be enough over the long term.
"I want to find out how that has all worked out," he said.
Gates said he'll also ask about intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities -- what he called his "favorite subject."
The fiscal 2010 defense budget includes a lot of new ISR items that Gates intends to roll out as quickly as possible to deployed forces. "I just want to make sure they are ready for it, will be able to absorb it and use it in an effective way," he said.