Gates Hopes Taliban Think U.S. Will Leave Afghanistan

MELBOURNE, Aus­tralia, Nov. 8, 2010 — Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said here today that he hopes the Tal­iban think July of next year is an end date for U.S. and NATO oper­a­tions in Afghanistan.

“It’s not,” Gates said dur­ing a round­table with Aus­tralian and Amer­i­can reporters at the Aus­tralia-Unit­ed States Min­is­te­r­i­al Con­sul­ta­tions. “They’re going to be very sur­prised come August, Sep­tem­ber, Octo­ber and Novem­ber, when most Amer­i­can forces are still there, and still com­ing after them.”

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s plan for July is to begin hand­ing over secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty to the Afghans, based on con­di­tions in any giv­en area. The tran­si­tion of secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ties to Afghan secu­ri­ty forces will be a years-long process, Gates said, not­ing that NATO heads of gov­ern­ment will dis­cuss the tran­si­tion at the alliance’s sum­mit meet­ing in Lis­bon, Por­tu­gal, lat­er this month.

“One of the agen­da items for the Lis­bon sum­mit is to embrace [Afghan] Pres­i­dent [Hamid] Karzai’s goal of com­plet­ing the trans­fer of secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty to Afghanistan by 2014,” the sec­re­tary said. “So I think that’s the kind of time frame we’re look­ing at.”

But even that won’t be the end of U.S. and world­wide engage­ment in Afghanistan, Gates said. “We’re going to remain a part­ner of Afghanistan even after our troops are gone,” he told the reporters. “We walked away from Afghanistan in 1988, and we saw the con­se­quences of that in 2001.”

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also par­tic­i­pat­ed in the round­table dis­cus­sion and said help­ing Pak­istan also is a pri­or­i­ty in the area, not­ing that the bor­der area between Afghanistan and Pak­istan is still the “epi­cen­ter of ter­ror­ism in the world.”

The Unit­ed States must con­tin­ue to engage with Pak­istan and must work to rebuild trust with the lead­ers, the chair­man said. That, too, is a long-range project, he added.

“It’s going to take time, and we’d like it to move more quick­ly,” Mullen said. “We con­tin­ue to sup­port them in train­ing and to work toward a strate­gic part­ner­ship. In the long run, that solves the prob­lem of Pak­istan not con­tin­u­ing as a safe haven.”

The Unit­ed States and its inter­na­tion­al part­ners will help Afghanistan with devel­op­ment, train­ing, equip­ment and so on, Gates said, and the bal­ance between secu­ri­ty and devel­op­ment will change as the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try improves. Secu­ri­ty needs are para­mount now, the sec­re­tary said, but over time that will improve and the Afghan gov­ern­ment, aid­ed by civil­ian agen­cies, will be the pri­ma­ry means of engage­ment. “We don’t see this as a rela­tion­ship that ends when the secu­ri­ty tran­si­tion is com­plet­ed,” he said.

The 2014 date for secu­ri­ty tran­si­tion is real­is­tic, both Gates and Mullen said. “There’s an awful lot that has been fleshed out,” the chair­man said. “We’ve accom­plished a lot in train­ing the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces over the last year in terms of their struc­ture, their train­ing, their cur­ricu­lum, etc.”

Gates stressed that any deci­sion about where Afghans take the lead and where NATO forces can thin out will be based on con­di­tions. Com­man­ders in Afghanistan will make their rec­om­men­da­tions. Civil­ian lead­ers in the alliance and with part­ner coun­tries such as Aus­tralia will review those rec­om­men­da­tions. Final­ly, the Afghan gov­ern­ment itself will exam­ine the rec­om­men­da­tions and make an assess­ment as to whether the forces have the capa­bil­i­ty to ensure secu­ri­ty, the sec­re­tary explained.

“I wouldn’t be sur­prised if there are some rec­om­men­da­tions as ear­ly as next spring, in terms of dis­tricts or provinces, that might be can­di­dates for tran­si­tion to Afghan secu­ri­ty at that time,” Gates said.

Secu­ri­ty, gov­er­nance and Afghan civil­ian capac­i­ty are three major areas that will be mea­sured as the tran­si­tion process moves along. Pri­ma­ry among these is the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion and the abil­i­ty of the Afghan nation­al secu­ri­ty forces – includ­ing local police – to main­tain secu­ri­ty.

The sec­re­tary said offi­cials chose the word “tran­si­tion” for the process very care­ful­ly.

“When the debate began a year ago on this, we used the word trans­fer,” he said. “But trans­fer con­not­ed that, ‘Today you have all this sup­port struc­ture, includ­ing all our troops and such – and tomor­row you have noth­ing.’”

Tran­si­tion describes a more grad­ual approach, he said. “You will see a thin­ning of the for­eign forces in a dis­trict or province so there is a bit of a safe­ty net under the Afghans as they take charge,” the sec­re­tary said. “I think this makes a lot sense.”

Aus­tralia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, most­ly in Oruz­gun province in Region­al Com­mand South – a hot area. Aus­tralia has lost 21 ser­vice­mem­bers in the coun­try. U.S. and Aus­tralian troops are again work­ing side by side in the province, and that was a mat­ter of dis­cus­sion dur­ing the min­is­te­r­i­al meet­ings.

“We dis­cussed Afghanistan, and we are very pleased with the way Aus­tralia and the Unit­ed States are com­bin­ing and oper­at­ing very well on the ground in Oruz­gun province,” Aus­tralian Defense Min­is­ter Steven Smith said dur­ing a news con­fer­ence at Gov­ern­ment House here.

The U.S. and Aus­tralian lead­ers said they agreed the strat­e­gy in Afghanistan is work­ing. All said that although Afghanistan is chal­leng­ing, there is progress. The strat­e­gy takes patience, they empha­sized.

The end game in Afghanistan must involve some degree of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between the Afghan gov­ern­ment and the Tal­iban, Gates said.

“It must be on the terms that the Afghan gov­ern­ment can accept,” he said. “My per­son­al opin­ion is that the Tal­iban need to clear­ly see that the prospects for suc­cess have dimin­ished dra­mat­i­cal­ly, and that they will lose, for them … to engage in rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. It would be dif­fi­cult to achieve those cir­cum­stances before next spring.”

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

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