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American Forces Press Service

NATO Allies Promise More Support in Afghanistan

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

NOORDWIJK, Netherlands, Oct. 24, 2007 – Talks here today appear to be paying off, with several NATO members here offering more support in Afghanistan for a mission Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called “a litmus test for the effectiveness of the alliance in the 21st century.”

Gates told reporters after the first of two days at the NATO informal ministerial conference here that he’s pleased to hear more countries are upping their contribution in Afghanistan or considering such a measure.

“Today was a considerably more positive day than I anticipated,” he said. “On the whole, I think today was a very good day.”

Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force since February, opened today’s discussions with a commander’s view of the effort. Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe and commander of U.S. European Command, presented the strategic picture.

“Their first message was that we are winning in Afghanistan,” a senior U.S. official who observed the session told reporters. “But their second message was: in order to maintain the pace -- and particularly to maintain the operational pace and increase our training commitment to the Afghans -- we have all got to do more.”

The commanders noted progress in training the Afghan National Army, which now is starting to take the lead in some operations. They pointed to the Afghan National Police as “the weak link” that needs more attention, the official said.

Gates said he’s seen a growing recognition in the alliance that success in training Afghan security forces is central to success in Afghanistan. “To this end, there has been a steady increase in contributions of training teams, and I was pleased that today more offers were put on the table,” he said.

The secretary noted, for example, that only 36 of some 72 non-U.S. operational mentoring and liaison teams needed by mid-2008 had been committed before today. “Some of the things I heard today lead me to believe that we will be nearer to the requirement by next summer,” he said.

Gates said he’d leave it to individual countries to announce their additional ISAF contributions. He declined to comment on media reports that France is among them, but said that “any greater French involvement would be most welcome.” The reports said France, which currently has its 1,000 ISAF troops in Kabul and Kandahar, could for the first time send dozens of military trainers into southern Afghanistan. A U.S. official said the decision would represent a major strategic shift for France.

While pleased by today’s progress, Gates said gaps remain within ISAF. “The mission still requires more maneuver elements and fewer restraints in how forces can be used,” he said. Also still lacking are enough helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

Gates said the ministers discussed these shortfalls “openly and honestly,” with some of the larger contributors speaking “very strongly about the need for increased contributions so that the burden is shared more equally by all.”

Among them was Netherlands, which is hosting the NATO ministerial conference just as the mandate for the Dutch forces in Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province is about to expire. Although Dutch government officials expect to keep some troops in Afghanistan, they would like to “lighten their force somewhat,” the official said, because they’ve been “punching well above their weight class, and they need some relief.”

She noted that several allies stepped forward today and said they’d be ready to offer help in Oruzgan next year.

Gates noted today that while NATO members have lived up to their individual commitments made at the 2006 NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, they’ve left “five baskets of broad commitments” required for success in Afghanistan unfilled.

“We need to lift our sights, it seems, to see what is needed long-term for success, beyond the specific commitments that have already been made,” he said. “And that includes efforts in economic development (and) civil institutions areas, as well as counter-narcotics.”

The NATO ministers reiterated their understanding today that success in Afghanistan requires a strategy that integrates all these efforts. “I think all of these things are important, and we need to do them all -- and more is required in each of these areas,” Gates told reporters. “My view is that it is not one or the other. It has to be a combination of all of the above.”

Gates said he’d like to see a central official appointed to coordinate efforts some 42 countries and about a dozen non-governmental organizations are making to support the non-military aspects of the mission. This person – and he specified that it shouldn’t be an American -- would help improve cooperation, share best practices learned and fill gaps, he said.

As important as these resources are to the mission, Gates said, effective strategic communication also is vital to success. The ministers acknowledged that “in some countries, there has to be a better effort to tell the story of Afghanistan,” the U.S. official said.

“It’s a long way from the hearts and minds and kitchen tables in Europe,” she said, “and there needs to be a continued effort to explain why we are there (and) the strategic importance for our countries.”

Gates said there’s solid agreement on the importance of succeeding in Afghanistan. “No one doubts the justice or necessity of the alliance mission in Afghanistan,” he said. “What we need now are actions, deeds and a sense of urgency and commitment to back up our pledges and promises.”

The secretary said he has no reason to doubt the participants will follow through with commitments voiced here during NATO’s force-generation session in early November. “I’m confident that NATO can rise to the occasion,” he said.

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