BRUSSELS, Belgium, June 9, 2011 — During their meetings that concluded here today, NATO defense ministers made substantial progress on Afghanistan and in calling on the alliance’s members to take up more of the burden of operations against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said.
In his final NATO news conference as defense secretary before his June 30 retirement, Gates noted that he arrived here to meet with his counterparts fresh from a three-day visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
“I shared my view that we are making substantial military progress on the ground,” he said. “I also reiterated my belief that these gains could be threatened if we do not proceed with the transition to Afghan security lead in a deliberate, organized and coordinated manner.”
The United States will announce its plans to begin the transfer for security responsibility to the Afghan government later this month, with the drawdown beginning in July, the secretary said.
“Even as the United States begins to draw down next month, I assured my fellow ministers that there will be no rush to the exits on our part — and we expect the same from our allies,” he said. About 100,000 U.S. service members are in Afghanistan, along with about 40,000 troops from 47 other nations under the NATO International Security Assistance Force.
But the measure of success is not just the number of troops, Gates said, but rather is the progress they have made, noting that U.S. forces have driven the Taliban out of their strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
“We made a great deal of progress in improving the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces, particularly the army, both in numbers and in quality,” he said.
The coalition and Afghan forces are putting the Taliban under significant pressure, Gates said. “I have always believed that only when they are under significant pressure and begin to contemplate that they can’t win are they then motivated to enter into serious reconciliation talks,” he added. “I see no changes likely in the next six months or so that are going to relieve the pressure for the Taliban.”
The defense ministers also heard from the ISAF commander, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who also was attending his last NATO ministerial meeting. He is scheduled to retire from the military and has been nominated to serve as CIA director. Among other things, Gates said, Petraeus discussed the status of Afghan forces to assume the security mission. “He said it is a mixed picture, but a very positive trajectory,” the secretary said.
For example, he said, Afghanistan now has 11,000 special operations forces who are leading a quarter of the raids, with the rest done in partnership with coalition forces.
“They have some very high quality forces,” Gates said. “They clearly still need partnering and mentoring, but they are making a great deal of headway.”
The NATO defense ministers also focused on the effort underway in Libya, and affirmed the recent agreement to extend the NATO mission for another 90 days. The secretary said the NATO strikes are becoming more and more effective at degrading the Gadhafi regime’s military capability.
“Although we will keep up this operations tempo for as long as necessary,” he added, “I did call for several alliance members to contribute military capabilities so that the burdens are more evenly shared and thus more easily sustained over time.”
The ministers also discussed a NATO supporting role for post-conflict Libya, but in support of other agencies such as the United Nations.
Gates said he is pleased with the resumption of the NATO-Russia Council. The defense ministers met in that forum after a three-year hiatus. They discussed missile defense and “reviewed the active efforts of our defense teams to lay the practical groundwork for cooperation on missile defense in Europe,” the secretary said.
Gates told reporters he had hoped to move forward with NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defense, but “it is clear that we will need more time.”
“The Department of Defense remains committed to working with the Russian Ministry of Defense in support of our presidents’ instructions at [a summit in Deauville, France],” Gates said, “and it was encouraging to hear the strong consensus support at the NATO-Russia Council for practical cooperation on missile defense directed against threats from outside Europe, such as Iran, and not against each other.”
He said Russian leaders are interested in how much a system might work, the secretary said. “I still think there are those in Russia who are still skeptical of our motives, so I think we just need to keep working this,” he added.
Gates said the mere fact that NATO and Russia are discussing such an issue shows how much the world has changed since he first came to government in 1966.
“NATO is far from the static defense alliance that used to be massed on the Fulda Gap,” he said. “And even though operations in Afghanistan and Libya have exposed some challenges and shortcomings in the alliance. … I also believe there is a growing recognition that other allies need to take on more of the burden and acquire greater military capabilities.” Gates said he is pleased with the progress this week on NATO reform and overhauling the NATO command structure.
“I started talking about overhauling the NATO command structure three years ago, and have been pushing these reforms ever since,” he said. “Under the leadership of the secretary general, and with the support of my fellow ministers, we have laid the groundwork for the most fundamental structural changes the alliance has ever seen.
“Although there is still hard work ahead to implement these changes,” he continued, “the tough political decisions have been made. But when they are finally realized — hopefully sooner rather than later — we will have modernized and streamlined NATO to address 21st century challenges.”
The alliance is looking at a reduction of about 25 to 30 percent of personnel. Reform looks at reducing the number of NATO defense agencies from 14 to three. That doesn’t mean squeezing all the personnel from 14 agencies into the three, Gates said, but to do the same work more efficiently and more cost-effectively.
The secretary expressed worry that countries will want to “pocket whatever savings” emerge from the effort, and that he would like the nations to instead invest any savings in developing military capabilities.
“The key is how can we do more together through pooled efforts in the alliance for countries whose defense budgets are under great pressure,” he said.
Examples are the strategic airlift capability that nations of the alliance have based in Hungary, and another is the alliance ground surveillance system. The secretary is expected to deliver a speech here tomorrow to explain his position in detail.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)