By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 13, 2009 - The sacrifices of coalition servicemembers in southern Afghanistan will allow more Afghans to vote in the national elections next week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today. Gates and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Afghan and international military forces are working to provide a secure environment so the Aug. 20 election can proceed.
"Due to some of the military operations that have taken place in the Helmand province and other places in the south, it looks like more Afghans will be able to vote than had been the case before the recent deployment of additional U.S. forces, and obviously that's an encouraging development," Gates said.
Still, the situation in the country is a mixed bag with areas in the north and west more secure than those in the east and south, he said.
"In some parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban have clearly established a presence," Gates said. "The operations under way now and those being considered for the coming months are designed to roll back the Taliban and establish a lasting security and government presence, a presence that can give the Afghan people confidence that they will be protected from intimidation and retribution."
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in the Afghanistan, will present his assessment of the situation sometime between the elections and mid-September, Gates said. The general already is making a real difference by putting in place a counterinsurgency strategy to minimize civilian casualties, he said.
McChrystal's assessment will not include specific recommendations or requests for more forces, Gates said. "However, we've made clear to General McChrystal that he is free to ask for what he needs, to complete the important mission that he has been given," the secretary said.
Any request for more personnel or resources "will be considered separately and subsequent to his assessment of the security situation," he said.
These military operations are but one component of a multi-faceted strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan announced by President Barack Obama four-and-a-half months ago.
Gates characterized a question on how long U.S. forces will be involved in military operations in Afghanistan as a mystery.
"In the intelligence business, we always used to categorize information in two ways: secrets and mysteries," he said. "The secrets were things that were ultimately knowable. Mysteries were those where there were too many variables to predict. And I think that how long U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan is in that area."
Gates said he hopes to see progress in a year, with one benchmark would be the ability to transfer more of security responsibility to the Afghans.
How fast the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police train is part of the calculus.
Another marker of progress, Cartwright said, is when security is in the equal interests of the coalition and Afghan people. The Afghans must buy into the idea of security and actively help the coalition and local forces maintain peace.
"When you start to see that attitude change, then you start to have a sense that things are going to move in a direction that would be towards the end of the violence," he said.
When that happens, operations will change to stabilizing areas and holding them clear of Taliban, which will allow for development, the general said.
Gates differentiated between the timeline for military operations and the overall commitment to Afghanistan. "I think you have to differentiate between institution-building and economic development, on the one hand, and defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida on the other," he said.
Military operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida may take a couple of years, the secretary said. "Economic development and institution-building, probably is a decades-long enterprise in a country has been through 30 years of war and has as high an illiteracy rate as Afghanistan does and low level of economic development," he said.