Kandahar: Warning that Afghanistan will be a “long fight,” US defence secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday, 11 December, that he hoped to send three more US combat brigades to the country by late spring.
“I do believe there will be a requirement for a sustained commitment here for a protracted period of time. How many years that is, and how many troops that is, nobody knows at this point,” he said during an unannounced visit to Afghanistan.
Gates made the remarks after meeting with the commander of US and Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces here and Dutch and British commanders of international forces fighting in the volatile south of the country.
General David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan, told reporters separately it would take three-four years to build up Afghan security forces sufficiently to reach a “tipping point” leading to less reliance on some 70,000 foreign troops.
“Until we get to this tipping point where there is sufficient security capabilities in Afghanistan, Afghan-led, there will probably continue to be a degree of insurgent violence. Absolutely,” he said.
McKiernan has asked for at least 20,000 extra US troops to counter rising insurgent violence in the east and south, which would push US force levels in Afghanistan past 50,000 troops.
The commander’s request includes four combat brigades, an aviation brigade and other support troops.
Gates said he agreed with McKiernan that “this is a long fight and I think we are in it until we are successful along with the Afghan people.”
The Pentagon has already scheduled the deployment of a combat brigade in January that originally had been slated to go to Iraq.
“Beyond January, we are hopeful we will be able to send an additional two brigade combat teams by late spring,” Gates said.
Asked whether the situation in the south was getting better or worse, Gates said the view of the commander there was that the situation was not getting worse, but that the insurgents were using different tactics.
“Not to put words in his mouth but I think he believes the Afghan security forces and their international partners are holding their own in RC-South,” he said.
“But I think everybody would agree that holding your own is not good enough.”
On the flight here from Washington, however, Gates, suggested that the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama should be careful in undertaking a build-up of foreign troops in a country that has often been hostile to outsiders.
“The history of foreign military forces in Afghanistan when they have been regarded by the Afghans as there for their own interests and as occupiers has not been a happy one,” he told reporters.
“The Soviets couldn’t win in Afghanistan with 120,000 troops and they clearly didn’t care about civilian casualties. So, I think we have to think about the longer term in this,” he said.
“Making sure the Afghans are out in front is a key element, but also figuring out how many foreign troops is too many in terms of being successful,” he said.
“I think that is still an unanswered question, and it may well be for some period of time,” he added.
Until now, the biggest constraint on the deployment more US troops to Afghanistan has been the hold that Iraq has exerted over US forces.
But Gates indicated that is changing with a new status of forces agreement with Iraq that requires all US combat troops to be out of Iraqi cities by the end of June, and out of the country by the end of 2011.
“I think that there probably will be considerable interest in keeping as much of our strength there (in Iraq) as we can through the provincial elections, and probably for some period of time after that,” Gates said.
But the June deadline for pulling troops out of the cities “really marks a significant transition of the mission,” he said.
“If all 18 provinces at that point are under Iraqi provincial control then we are going to be dealing more and more with the train and equip mission, the counter-terrorism mission, and support of the Iraqis,” he said.
Gates, who has been kept on as defence secretary, said he had had several telephone conversations with Obama, but they had been focused mostly on personnel issues.
“We really haven’t sat down yet for a thorough discussion of specific foreign policy or national security issues,” he said.