By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 8, 2010 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is visiting Afghanistan to get what he called the "ground truth" from servicemembers.
Gates flew all night and landed at the international airport here. He immediately began a series of meetings with Afghan and NATO leaders.
"I hope to use this time to get out to some of the forward bases to thank the troops and talk with them," Gates said during an interview aboard the aircraft. "It's always interesting. I get briefings in the Pentagon about how things are going, and then I go out and visit an Army post or Air Force base and discover that they are living in a parallel universe. It will be good to get ground truth on some of these issues from the troops themselves."
Gates said he is going to Afghanistan "to get an update on the campaign not only in Marja, but [also on the] the next steps as we look to the spring and summer."
Marines and soldiers accompanied by a significant number of Afghan security forces are fighting the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies in Marja, a strategic area west of Kandahar. U.S. and Afghan forces announced months before the offensive into the area that they were coming. What's more, they pledged to clear the area of Taliban and then establish security so that development and governance could immediately follow.
The secretary said he also wants to examine efforts to counter the biggest killers of U.S. servicemembers and Afghans: car, roadside and suicide bombs. He particularly wants to see how U.S. forces can help allies combat these threats.
Gates said he wants to see for himself that troops in Afghanistan are getting what they need, when they need it. "I want to get a picture on the ground from the other end of the force flow," he said, "and in particular, whether the equipment for the surge troops is arriving in a timely way."
He said he also is interested in checking on the timeliness of medical evacuation out of the country and the flow of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities into Afghanistan.
The secretary said he wants to speak with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about his visit to Marja and the community meetings he held there. He also hopes to speak with the president about Karzai hosting a "loya jurga" a grand council of tribal leaders -- in April.
Gates said he sees no disagreement among nations regarding reconciliation and reintegration of former Taliban members and that he expects to learn more about the process in his visit to the country.
However, the secretary said, he suspects the Taliban will not be amenable to participating in a reconciliation process just yet. The Taliban still believe they are winning, he explained, though commanders including Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the NATO and U.S. commander in the country believe the Taliban momentum has been blunted. And this is happening with only 6,000 of the 30,000 new American troops having arrived in Afghanistan to date. All will be in the country by the end of August, Gates said. "We ought not get too impatient," the secretary said.
Once the Taliban realize the new NATO strategy is working, Gates said, many will see reconciliation and reintegration as options.
Meanewhile, Gates has adopted a "wait-and-see" attitude about efforts in Afghanistan. "There are bits and pieces of good news," he said. "I think we should stick to the McChrystal position that the situation remains serious, but has stopped deteriorating. There are positive developments going on, but I would say it is very early yet, and I think people need to understand there are some very hard days ahead.
"The early signs are encouraging," he continued, "but I worry that people may get too impatient and think things are better than they actually are."
Gates also is going to check on the status of the more than 1,000 all-terrain mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that are now in Afghanistan. He wants to hear from the troops how these vehicles are doing and what other things they need. He also wants to check on progress in an initiative to building a warehouse of capabilities to counter improvised explosive devices at the battalion level, he added.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad will be visiting Afghanistan this week too. The secretary said Iran is playing a double game in Afghanistan. Iranian leaders want to maintain good relations with their neighbor to the east, but they do not want the United States to be successful in Afghanistan, he explained.
Building governmental capacity is a key to success in Afghanistan, Gates noted, and he said he wants to find ways to better coordinate the efforts of provincial reconstruction teams to enhance the capacity of Afghan governmental structures. He wants to look at "how to make the development projects more Afghan-centric, and how do we use [the teams] to build capacity at the subnational and national level in Afghanistan," he said.