US Secretary of State for Defense Robert M. Gates

Report by Mike Barlow & Charles Strathdee

In excess of 2,000 US Marines are to enter the Afghan battle zone this summer, reinforcing Canadian troops engaged in a hard fight against Taliban extremists around Kandahar in the south of the war-ravaged country. Meanwhile in the United Kingdom the Royal Marines and soldiers of 3 Commando Brigade will be preparing for their second six-month tour of duty in Helmand Province, another hot zone. The UK commandos will deploy in the autumn to relieve 16 Air Assault Brigade of the British Army. For the American marines, with years of war-fighting experience in Iraq under their belts, the Afghan theatre offers more of the same in many ways, but without their support the Canadians would possibly pull out immediately, so disgusted are they at the failure of other NATO nations to pull their weight and shed blood. Likewise the Royal Marines, and their red beret cousins, the Paras, have taken casualties and been forced to ditch their primary roles - as the UK’s amphibious and airborne forces - in order to carry the burden, taking both the strain and the pain.  The financial cost of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is causing severe damage to the British armed forces, with the Brown government refusing to raise the defence budget to an adequate level.

THE disparity between NATO nations’ commitment to combat in Afghanistan is deepening fault lines within the alliance. There is alarm at the highest level that weakening resolve could not only allow the Taliban to regroup after serious losses, but also be the source of lasting damage to the organisation. Although 40 nations - including all 26 NATO countries - have troops serving in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), combat operations against the Taliban have been carried out primarily by personnel from the US, UK and Canada. The three nations today have 27,000 troops (USA), 7,800 (UK) and 2,250 (Canada) in country.  There are about 43,250 troops in ISAF but the relatively small proportion committed to establishing security in the dangerous south means it is difficult to pursue a successful "clear, hold, build" counter-insurgency strategy. Forces are able to clear, but they are too few to hold. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said In February that the disparity makes it close to impossible to reach the build section of the strategy. Furthermore, he observed: "So we need to have enough troops there, that once these areas are cleared we can hold them, so economic development and civil development can proceed. Ideally, those that hold the territory will be Afghan police and Afghan army but they are not ready yet.”

A short-term solution is a larger NATO-led ISAF. Gates said: "Any additional numbers from any country are most appreciated."
Germany, with just over 3,000 servicemen in Afghanistan, is the third largest participant in operations but its soldiers are not involved in combat and are stationed mostly in the comparatively safe northern provinces. The coalition government in Berlin is unwilling to commit its poorly resourced army to Afghanistan because of the pacifist tendencies of its liberal and left wing elements. While the Germans have helped with reconstruction efforts - building schools and digging wells - they are forbidden from conducting anything that smacks of counter-insurgency warfare, and, furthermore, are not allowed to operate after sunset. The Americans, not hindered by the UK government’s urge not to offend fellow EU nations, have been very outspoken about the refusal of Germany and other nations to shed blood in the fight to save Afghanistan from Islamist extremists. At a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers in Munich last month, Secretary Gates painted a depressing picture of the possible consequences of NATO’s lack of effort. He said: “We must not become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not. Such a development, with all its implications for collective security, would effectively destroy the alliance.”  Gates said that while he believes European government leaders understand the threats, public support in Europe for the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan is weak because many people on the Continent do not connect the mission with their own safety.

“Many Europeans question the relevance of our actions and doubt whether the mission is worth the lives of their sons and daughters,” he said. “As a result, many want to remove their troops. The September 11 2001 terror attacks in the United States galvanized Americans, and US citizens realised that events half a world away could pose dangers to them. Though Europeans have not experienced an attack of similar scope, that doesn’t mean the extremists aren’t trying. Europeans have been and are targets of this hateful ideology.” However, there have been signs that France is willing to increase its presence in the country. Gates welcomed this potential development: “France is a very serious military power. For France to make a commitment would be a very important step. I’m not sure whether the government of France has made a decision on what to do. I would just say that if they decided to make that kind of contribution, first it would be most welcome, and I think it would send a good signal about their participation in this NATO mission and about the future.” Highlighting the links between the Taliban and terror groups in the region, the US Defense Secretary further underlined the importance of the mission in Afghanistan by saying: “These groups take their lessons, inspiration and sometimes funding from Al-Qaeda and like groups in Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa. Many who have been arrested have had direct connections to Al-Qaeda. Some have met with top leaders or attended training camps abroad. Some are connected to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Europeans have to ask themselves what would happen if these terror groups had a real success by winning in Afghanistan or Iraq or toppling Pakistan’s government?”

Gates insisted he was neither exaggerating the threat nor saying the terrorists are invincible. “The task before us is to fracture and destroy this movement in its infancy; to permanently reduce its ability to strike globally and catastrophically, while deflating its ideology,” he said. “Our best opportunity as an alliance to do this is in Afghanistan. Just as the hollowness of Communism was laid bare with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so too would success in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq, strike a decisive blow against what some commentators have called Al-Qaedaism.”
People who believe in freedom must unite against terror, said Gates. “If we are willing to stand together, we can prevail. It will not be quick, and it will not be easy but it can be done. Other actors in the global arena - Hezbollah, Iran and others - are watching what we say and what we do and making choices about their future course.”
Since NATO’s November 2006 summit in Riga, Latvia, Gates noted, there has been much focus on whether all allies are meeting their commitments and carrying their share of the burden. “I have had a few things to say about that myself,” he said. “In truth, virtually all allies are fulfilling the individual commitments they have made. The problem is that the alliance as a whole has not fulfilled its broader commitment from Riga to meet the force requirements of the commander in the field.”
Gates said he wants the allies and associated nations to look at the requirements and try to find creative ways to fill them, and by doing so ensure all NATO countries contribute.

Turning to the alliance’s successes, Gates said that offensive and counter-insurgency operations in southern Afghanistan have dislodged the Taliban from their strongholds and reduced their ability to launch large-scale or co-ordinated attacks. “Afghanistan has made substantial progress in health care, education, and the economy, bettering the lives of millions of its citizens. Through the Afghan mission, we have developed a much more sophisticated understanding of what capabilities we need as an alliance and what shortcomings must be addressed.”  Gates told reporters a long-term NATO strategy paper on Afghanistan was to be presented to the alliance’s heads of state in Romania during the Bucharest Summit this month (April). He said: “The reason I suggested a strategy paper that looks out three to five years is because I think we need to lift our sights. I think there is too much focus on where will we be in 2008 or 2009. The reality is this is a long-term project, and Afghanistan is going to need help for a long time. As an example, compare and contrast that Iraq has a budget of $50 billion per year. The total government revenues for Afghanistan this year is expected to be, optimistically, $675 million.” He carried on: “Afghanistan is going to need help in establishing security, economic development and quality of life for years to come. We obviously would like to see this transition from a mission that has a very large security component to a mission that becomes almost exclusively economic development and humanitarian assistance, but you can’t do those things without a secure environment.”

Events in Pakistan, meanwhile, had given Gates cause for optimism that the government of Pervez Musharraf would now be willing to take a firmer line on dealing with terrorists based within its borders. Coalition forces in Afghanistan have long been dismayed that their expenditure in blood and resources is constantly undermined by the terrorists’ freedom of movement between the two countries. Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) of Iranian origin exact a mounting toll on Coalition troops while arms, ammunition and fresh recruits are also funnelled into Afghanistan across the porous border. Gates said in Vilnius, at another informal meeting of ministers, that Pakistan has only recently realised the full significance of terrorism in its remote tribal areas.
He said: “It’s only been in the last few months, in my opinion, that Pakistan has come to realise that the situation along the border with Afghanistan potentially represents a serious threat to the state of Pakistan itself. The federally administered tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan have provided safe havens for Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.  The Pakistani military has limited control in the region, and the tribal influence spreads across the border to Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and some of the other insurgent groups have threatened to kill the leadership of Pakistan, they’ve threatened to destabilise the government, they are almost certainly responsible for the assassination of [former Prime Minister] Benazir Bhutto.”

The Secretary claimed that in the past the Pakistanis looked at the border unrest as a nuisance and added: “My hope is that we will see the Pakistanis take a more aggressive stand out there.” Gates’ comments reflect American disappointment at the failure of Pakistan to clamp down on lawlessness and insurgency, despite benefiting from billions of dollars in US military aid. Pakistan forces remain ill-trained in counter-insurgency operations and appear unable to prevent the passage through its territory of the Taliban and terrorist forces that are doing so much damage to Coalition efforts to secure stability in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pakistan has reportedly deployed 100,000 troops to tackle the problem, and suffered hundreds of casualties but it is widely believed that both Osama bin Laden and the Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar operate from territory just inside Pakistan.  At the same gathering in Vilnius, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer stressed the need to show flexibility and share risks. He called on Allies to provide more capabilities to fulfil the mission. However, at the summit it looked like the call for more fighting troops would go unheeded, except by France which was considering sending around a thousands extra troops that would free up more US Marines to fight in the south, rather than making a direct contribution to fighting forces.

In January 2008, a US Navy Hospital Corpsman conducts patrols with soldiers of the Afghan National Army. Photo: Luis P. Valdespino Jr/US Navy.

In January 2008, a US Navy Hospital Corpsman conducts patrols with soldiers of the Afghan National Army. Photo: Luis P. Valdespino Jr/US Navy.

Royal Marines from the UK’s Delta Company, 40 Commando meet some Afghan children during a patrol in Helmand. Photo: LA (Phot) A.J. Macleod/Royal Navy.

Royal Marines from the UK’s Delta Company, 40 Commando meet some Afghan children during a patrol in Helmand. Photo: LA (Phot) A.J. Macleod/Royal Navy.