Afghanistan at Important Point in Struggle, Gates Says

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.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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