By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 2, 2009 - President Barack Obama's decision on the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy offers the best possibility to decisively change the momentum in Afghanistan and fundamentally alter the strategic equation in Pakistan and Central Asia, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Senate Armed Service Committee here today. A centerpiece of the president's decision is to surge 30,000 American troops into the eastern and southern areas of the country in the first six months of 2010. The president said combating al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan is in America's vital national interest, and he reaffirmed the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its return.
"The international military effort to stabilize Afghanistan is necessary to achieve this overarching goal," Gates said. "Defeating al-Qaida and enhancing Afghan security are mutually reinforcing missions. They cannot be untethered from one another, as much as we might wish that to be the case."
Taliban support for al-Qaida complicates an already complicated situation in Afghanistan. "The success of the Taliban would vastly strengthen al-Qaida's message to the Muslim world that violent extremists are on the winning side of history," Gates said. "Put simply, the Taliban and al-Qaida have become symbiotic, each benefiting from the success and mythology of the other."
After setbacks early in the war, the Taliban have reconstituted and now hold parts of Afghanistan. This, Gates said, has increased the attractiveness of the Taliban myth and encouraged extremists.
"The lesson of the Taliban's revival for al-Qaida is that time and will are on their side," the secretary said, "[and] that, with a Western defeat, they could regain their strength and achieve a major strategic victory as long as their senior leadership lives and can continue to inspire and attract followers and funding.
"Rolling back the Taliban is now necessary, even if not sufficient, to the ultimate defeat of al-Qaida," he added.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have too many ties of tribes, culture, commerce and faith to ignore in this struggle, Gates said. Pakistan also is a nuclear power and is targeted by extremists.
"The two countries ... share a porous border of more than 1,500 miles," he said. "Giving extremists breathing room in Pakistan led to the resurgence of the Taliban and more coordinated, sophisticated attacks in Afghanistan. Providing a sanctuary for extremists in southern and eastern Afghanistan would put yet more pressure on a Pakistani government already under attack from groups operating in the border region."
The Taliban in Pakistan, with al-Qaida's help, have escalated bombing attacks throughout the country. In the spring, they launched operations that took the extremist group to within 60 miles of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. The Pakistani army has moved decisively against this threat and also has launched operations in South Waziristan – part of the federally administered tribal area that holds al-Qaida and Taliban safe havens.
Gates told the senators that the United States has work to do in winning the Pakistani people's confidence for the way ahead. "Because of American withdrawal from the region in the early 1990s, followed by a severing of military-to-military relations, many Pakistanis are skeptical that the United States is a reliable, long-term strategic partner," he said. "We must change that perception."
The threat is real, Gates said. If Islamic extremists are successful in Central and South Asia, he told the senators, it would strengthen al-Qaida in particular and extremist groups in general.
"It would strengthen the al-Qaida narrative, providing renewed opportunities for recruitment, fund-raising and more sophisticated operations," the secretary said. "Aided by the Internet, many more followers could join their ranks, both in the region and in susceptible populations across the globe."
The border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan is "the epicenter of extremist jihadism: the historic place where native and foreign Muslims defeated one superpower and, in their view, caused its collapse at home," Gates said.
Paramilitary fighters took on the Soviet Union after its occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. They fought against the Red Army for years until Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pulled out the last troops in 1988. "For [extremists] to be seen to defeat the sole remaining superpower in the same place would have severe consequences for the United States and the world," Gates warned.
"Less than five years after the last Soviet tank crossed the Termez Bridge out of Afghanistan," he said, "Islamic militants launched their first attack on the World Trade Center in New York. We cannot afford to make a similar mistake again."
U.S. strategy aims to reverse the Taliban's momentum and reduce its strength while providing the time and space necessary for the Afghans to develop enough security and governance capacity to stabilize their own country, the secretary said. Its goals are to roll back the Taliban, deny them access to the Afghan people, disrupt them outside secured areas, prevent al-Qaida from regaining sanctuary and degrade Taliban capabilities to levels that allow Afghan national security forces to take the lead.
The strategy also calls for increasing the size and capability of Afghan security forces and selectively building the Afghan government's capacity, particularly in key ministries.
"This approach is not open-ended 'nation building,'" Gates said. "It is neither necessary nor feasible to create a modern, centralized, Western-style Afghan nation-state, the likes of which has never been seen in that country."
It also does not mean pacifying every village from one end of Afghanistan to the other, the secretary said. "It is, instead, a narrower focus tied more tightly to our core goal of disrupting, dismantling and eventually defeating al-Qaida by building the capacity of the Afghans – capacity that will be measured by observable progress on clear objectives, and not simply by the passage of time."
The civil-military plan is to clear, hold, build and transfer, the secretary said.
"Beginning to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans in summer 2011 is critical – and, in my, view achievable," the secretary said. "This transfer will occur district by district, province by province, depending on conditions on the ground. The process will be similar to what we did in Iraq, where international security forces provided 'overwatch' – first at the tactical level, then at the strategic level."
The United States will continue to work with the Afghan government and military, even after transferring security responsibility to the Afghans, he noted.
"We will not repeat the mistakes of 1989, when we abandoned the country only to see it descend into chaos, and then into Taliban hands," Gates, who was the deputy director of central intelligence at the time, told the senators.
The first additional U.S. forces will begin to arrive in Afghanistan within two or three weeks, the secretary said, and when all of them are in place, about 100,000 American servicemembers will be in Afghanistan.
"We are looking to NATO and our other partners to send a parallel international message of strong resolve," he said. "Our allies must take the lead and focus their resources in the north and west to prevent the insurgency from establishing new footholds."
U.S. officials will ask allies for an additional 5,000 to 7,000 troops, and the United States expects them to share more of the burden of training, equipping and funding the Afghan army and police.
Gates said that while the situation in Afghanistan is worsening, it is nowhere near as bad as Iraq was when he took office three years ago.
"With all the resources already committed to this campaign, ... I believe the pieces are being put in place to make real and measurable progress in Afghanistan over the next 18 to 24 months," the secretary said.
The effort in Afghanistan will take more patience, perseverance, and sacrifice by the United States and its allies, Gates said. "As always, the heaviest burden will fall on the men and women who have volunteered – and in many cases re-volunteered – to serve their country in uniform," he added. "I know they will be uppermost in our minds and prayers as we take on this arduous, but vitally necessary, mission.”