By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 8, 2010 - Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met in Kabul today to discuss the challenges still facing Afghanistan and the increasing opportunities in the country. Gates and Karzai discussed the major operation under way in Helmand province during their talks at the presidential palace before meeting with reporters in a joint news conference.
Karzai approved and devoted significant Afghan troops to the operation in Helmand, which is blunting Taliban momentum in the country, Gates said. Other positive developments include additional military and civilian support from the international community, increasing pressure on the Taliban inside Pakistan, and Afghans' response to Karzai's call to take on the Taliban.
Karzai and Gates also discussed the "Peace Jurga" that the Afghan president will convene in late April. Karzai said the jurga will welcome Afghans from all walks of life all across the nation. "The objective will be to get guidance from the Afghan people on how to move forward toward reintegration and reconciliation, where reconciliation may be possible," the president said. Those who support al-Qaida cannot reconcile without abandoning that support, he added.
Reconciliation efforts are for Afghans forced by circumstances to support insurgents to come back into the fold, Karzai stressed.
Gates agreed, saying he believes thousands of Afghans are fighting for the Taliban "out of economic necessity or because they or their families have been intimidated." It is important to create conditions so these people can rejoin Afghan society, the secretary said, but reconciliation must be on the Afghan government's terms, under which "those who are reconciling have agreed to abide by the Afghan constitution and to put down their arms and disassociate with al-Qaida and to rejoin Afghan civil society." The discussions already have begun. Karzai visited Helmand yesterday and spoke at length with tribal elders about the concerns and needs of the people there.
"The insights that President Karzai shared with me about his visit shows once again that establishing security is only the first step," Gates said. "Long-term success will ultimately be determined by how well the Afghan government – with the support of the international community – can respond to the needs of the people and inspire their loyalty."
Initial results in the area are encouraging, the secretary said, noting that government officials already have put agricultural and employment programs in place and that bazaars and schools are reopening. "Most importantly, displaced families are returning home," Gates said.
Marja, in central Helmand, is one example of the success of the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. The strategy calls for protection of the population as the goal of the coalition and Afghan forces. The operations in Helmand have carefully avoided civilian casualties, which have been dramatically reduced. "When, despite our very best efforts, they do occur, we will continue to acknowledge our mistakes and find new and better ways to coordinate more closely with Afghan forces," Gates said.
Tens of thousands of international forces are joining the fight, and thousands of new Afghan security forces are being trained. "Successful operations depend on Afghan national security forces," the secretary said. "I support President Karzai's goal of 300,000 soldiers and police by the end of next year."
The secretary said he will continue to work with NATO allies and international partners to get more trainers and mentors for Afghan forces. "We are all united in wanting to see the Afghans assume greater responsibility for the security of their own country and their own people," Gates said.
Much fighting remains, Gates acknowledged, and more casualties and more dark days are ahead. "But looking forward, there are grounds for optimism as our countries pursue what President Karzai has called an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned initiative to achieve peace and stability," he said.