By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 8, 2009 - The situation in Pakistan and the way ahead in Iraq were among the issues Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates spoke about with the Arabic television network Al-Jazeera in an interview being broadcast this week. The network's Washington bureau chief, Abderrahim Foukara, spoke with the secretary Sept. 4.
Gates traced the growth of the insurgency in Afghanistan to a lessening of pressure on al-Qaida and the Taliban across the border in Pakistan.
"Frankly, when agreements were reached on the Pakistani side of the border, it essentially relieved the pressure from the Pakistan side on the Taliban, who were then in Pakistan," Gates said. "So we have seen a steady increase in violence that really began late in 2005 and early 2006, and the Taliban have gotten better and better over that time."
And other extremist groups – such as the Hakkani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group – have rushed to embrace the Taliban. Gates called these alliances of convenience, but acknowledged they still are effective. "It is now perhaps a more complex situation [in Afghanistan and Pakistan] than it was in 2002," he said.
Part of that, he said, resulted from earlier mistakes. "We did not provide the resources in Afghanistan early enough to stem this change in the situation in 2005 and 2006," Gates said, noting that the war in Iraq made it difficult to do so. "We didn't have the resources to move in reinforcements, if you will, as the situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate," he said.
Getting Pakistan on board with the strategy in the region is important for the United States, Gates said, calling trust and commitment the keys to that aim.
Pakistan is important in its own right to the United States, Gates said, but it also is important in terms of violent extremists who cross back and forth across the Pakistani-Afghan border and put both governments at risk.
The United States cannot duplicate its policy – or lack of one – that existed after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, Gates said. "As soon as the Soviets left Afghanistan, we turned our backs on Afghanistan and we did not cultivate our relationship with the Pakistanis properly," he said.
"And so, I think we gave rise to doubts in the region about whether we are prepared to stay there and be their partner on a continuous basis," he said. "And I believe we've learned our lesson, and that both Afghanistan and Pakistan can count on us for the long term."
The secretary generally was upbeat on the future of Iraq, noting that the Iraqi security forces have taken control and are performing their mission. The country will stay together, Gates said, even as America withdraws from the nation.
"I think we have real confidence that they can do that," he said, "and I think the best evidence that a sense of Iraqi nationalism has returned is that al-Qaida has made very strong efforts in recent weeks and months to try and provoke a renewal of the sectarian violence between the Sunnis and the Shiias in Iraq through suicide bombers. And what has been interesting and encouraging is that they have failed in that effort."
American leaders, the secretary said, have a high opinion of the Iraqi army and police. The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, says the Iraqi security forces have developed better and faster than he anticipated, Gates added.
"I think that's why you have not seen renewed sectarian violence, and that's why we are comfortable with the arrangements in which we have withdrawn from cities and in which we will withdraw all our combat troops by the end of August next year," he said.
Gates categorically said the United States will have all troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011. "That is the agreement that we have with the Iraqi government," he said. "All U.S. forces. No bases. No forces."