By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
CAMP EGGERS, Afghanistan, June 4, 2011 – The conflict against the Taliban in Afghanistan has reached an important inflection point in the struggle for the future of the country, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.
Gates met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul, where Karzai presented Gates with the Wazir Akbar Khan award, named for an Afghan leader who fought against the Russians.
During a joint news conference after their meeting, Karzai thanked Gates for his support of the Afghan people and for always trying to see the struggle against terrorists through their eyes. The president, speaking through a translator, said that in the meetings with Gates he once again brought up the matter of civilian casualties. He asked the secretary to end bombardment of homes and night raids.
In his remarks, the defense secretary acknowledged weariness in both Afghanistan and the United States over the duration and costs of the conflict.
“I am keenly aware that some of these [International Security Assistance Force] military operations have at times impacted the Afghan people in unwelcome ways – from minor but grating inconveniences to, in some rare but tragic cases, civilians accidently killed or injured – losses we mourn and profoundly regret,” he said.
“But we also know that the vast majority of civilian casualties are caused by the Taliban – who intentionally target innocent men, women and children with their terror attacks. And few Afghan citizens want a return to the cruel and despotic regime that so devastated this country during the 1990s.”
Gates took the opportunity to speak directly to the Afghan people. He said the Taliban have suffered serious losses in leadership, manpower and territory over the last year and a half. At the same time, the Afghan national security forces have grown by tens of thousands, and they are far better trained.
“This shift in military momentum provides the Afghan government an opportunity to strengthen the confidence of its people though economic development, fair enforcement of the rule of law, attacking corruption and the provision of basic services,” he said.
Next month, ISAF will begin a gradual, responsible transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces, Gates said, with all coalition forces out of the country by the end of 2014. As the transition moves forward, “we are committed to a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan,” he added.
“We will continue to train, equip and support Afghan security forces and do what we can to help the government improve the lives of its citizens,” Gates continued. “In short, there will be no rush to the exits. “I know that Leon Panetta, President’s Obama’s choice as my successor, shares this view.”
The United States has learned the catastrophic consequences – for the Afghan people, for the region, and for the world – of allowing violent extremists allied with terrorists to dominate Afghanistan, the secretary said.
For the upcoming transition to be successful, the Afghan government and security forces must be willing to step up and take more and more responsibility for governing and defending their own territory, Gates said. “This is the true manifestation of Afghan sovereignty,” he added. “The international coalition wants to be a strong partner in this effort, but ultimately, it is up to the Afghan people and their elected government to chart Afghanistan’s destiny.”
Gates will visit with U.S. and coalition service members over the next few days. “It will be my last chance as defense secretary to look them each in the eye and thank them for their service and sacrifice – on behalf of the future of Afghanistan, the stability of this key region, and the security of the United States,” he said. Gates retires June 30.