By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
MILWAUKEE, Aug. 31, 2010 – The U.S. military has fought two separate wars in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the American Legion here today.
The first war was when the military defeated the Taliban and its terrorist allies from 2001 to 2002. The second war in Afghanistan started with a holding action in the country and only now do commanders in Afghanistan have the troops and resources necessary to win this second conflict.
Gates spoke to the annual convention of the American Legion – one of the nation’s largest veterans’ service organizations. He said the invasion of Iraq distracted leaders and diverted needed resources from effort against the Taliban.
This had a cost. “Starting in 2003, the Taliban regrouped, re-filled their ranks, re-constituted themselves in safe havens and re-entered Afghanistan,” Gates said.
Violence against the NATO-led coalition, against Afghan security forces and against the Afghan people increased significantly in 2005, “and has grown worse ever since,” he said.
But a corner has been turned, and the coalition now has the resources needed to stop the Taliban and give the Afghan government the breathing room it needs to take control.
“The total international military commitment, when fully deployed, will reach approximately 150,000 – more than three times the number when I became defense secretary four years ago,” Gates said. This number includes 45,000 troops from NATO allies and other international partners.
The coalition also has tripled the number of civilian experts working with Afghanistan’s central and provincial governments.
But, the Afghans must ultimately accept responsibility for their country’s security. About 85 percent of the Afghan security forces are partnered with coalition forces. They are learning through instruction and by example how to secure and hold territory, and allow the government to take hold.
The Obama counterinsurgency strategy is taking hold, the secretary said. All allies are following the strategy that protects the population and separates the vast majority of Afghans from the Taliban and other insurgents.
As part of the strategy, the United States will begin to bring troops home in July 2011. This does not mean the lights go off in the country next summer, Gates said.
“As in Iraq, our drawdown will be gradual and conditions-based, accompanied by a build-up of our military assistance and civilian development efforts,” he said. “If the Taliban really believe that America is heading for the exits next summer in large numbers, they’ll be deeply disappointed and surprised to find us still very much in the fight. And the realization that we are still there and aggressively going after them will impact their morale and willingness to continue resisting their government and the international coalition.”
The enemy will continue to resist, Gates predicted, noting that the Taliban are ruthless and cruel. But they are paying a price – more than 350 Taliban leaders have been killed or captured over the past three months, the secretary said.
Yet, Gates said, victory over the Taliban will not be an easy endeavor.
“It will be a tough, hard campaign, with its share of setbacks and heartbreak,” the secretary said. “The fact that we knew that our losses would increase as the fight was brought to the enemy makes them no easier to bear.” He said the increasing casualty count is reminiscent in some ways of the initial months of the surge in Iraq.
Gates said it is important that America stick with the strategy and continue to support the effort in Afghanistan. Ignoring Afghanistan after the Soviets left put in place the haven that al-Qaida used to attack the United States, Great Britain, Indonesia and many other areas, he said.
“Success is not inevitable,” Gates said. “But with the right strategy and the willingness to see it through, it is possible. And it is worth the fight.”