Gates Pleased with Progress on Afghanistan, NATO Reform

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)

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