When U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Afghanistan
this week, he highlighted the challenges of building stability in the country
at a time when violence is rising sharply.
The Governor of Afghanistan's Kunar Province,
Fazlullah Wahidi, briefed U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he visited the U.S. Forward
Operating Base in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday (9/17).
"The bridges and the roads, that's the most important for security, because Kunar is divided by this river. You see, the river is there, along the road," said Wahidi who enthusiastically told Gates about
American efforts to improve roads, schools and other services.
At a table ringed mostly by
military officers, the conversation focused on civilian issues. “Like Dan had mentioned about the package of economic
development - all these things, we like to do the balanced development, not
the unbalanced development," said Wahidi.
But at the same
time, Governor Wahidi reported he has asked the U.S. commander in the area for
daily helicopter patrols along one key stretch of new road to help prevent
insurgents from placing roadside bombs.
The meeting illustrated the
complexity of the interlocking problems Secretary Gates is trying to tackle -
security, economic development and improved governance.
With a shortage of U.S. diplomats
and aid officials, the military is taking on some civilian duties. Speaking of the importance of road-building,
one American general said "asphalt is ammunition" in defeating the
The top U.S. general in
Afghanistan, David McKiernan, was frank with reporters about how his mission is
"In some places in Afghanistan,
there is improving security. In some
places, there's improving governance. In
some places there's improving prosperity.
There are very few places where all three of those come together,"
The general says
"winning" in Afghanistan
may involve scaling back on the goal of establishing a Western-style
democracy. He says a more realistic
objective is what he calls "viable governance".
"Viable governance that meets
the people's expectations. It's not
going to be [like] Peoria, Illinois," said McKiernan.
The general wants about 20,000 more
U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan. He says he will need them on a sustained
basis, not for a year-long surge like the one that just ended in Iraq. That would bring the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to more than 50,000.
A Change in the Strategy?
Officials acknowledge that it will
be difficult to provide the additional troops from an already strained U.S.
military, at least until some can be withdrawn from Iraq. And generals there cautioned against doing
that too quickly when Secretary Gates visited Baghdad at the beginning of the
week. They don't want to risk hard-won
security improvements that they say are still "fragile".
Until recently, U.S. officials
were content to treat Afghanistan as what came to be known as an "economy
of force" mission, in which they do what they can with available
forces. Now there is an increased sense
of urgency, with violence up 30 percent in the past year, talk of more troops and
possibly some changes in strategy.
But at a news conference in front
of the U.S. embassy in Kabul this week, Secretary Gates noted that the United States
and NATO have added substantial forces in recent years, and he made this prediction:
"In addition to the increased forces that the international partners have
agreed to send, we will be sending additional forces in 2009. And my expectation is that we will be able to
meet the requirements that the commanders have here during the course of
Secretary Gates probably will not
be in office after January 20, when a new president is inaugurated in Washington. But both major presidential candidates -
John McCain and Barack Obama - have indicated they also want to do as much as
possible to bring the violence in Afghanistan under control.
Building New Security Forces
A big part of that involves
building the country's new security forces, a project supervised by U.S. Army
Major General Robert Cone.
"I'm pretty optimistic about
what can happen here. Although I will
tell you, every day is three steps forward, one step back, one step sideways,
two steps forward, two steps back. I
mean, that's the way it is in this country," says Cone.
Afghanistan's Army is growing about as
quickly as U.S.
officials believe it possibly can - increasing from about 39,000 to some 65,000
in just the past year, with a similar-sized increase planned for the coming
General Cone says the Afghan Army
already is the most respected institution in the country. But he would not make any prediction about
when it would be ready to maintain security with fewer international forces. He says there is even some concern among top
Afghan leaders that the Army could become too popular.
General Cone says the police are
far behind in their development, and he notes he has been waiting several
months for 23,000 more foreign trainers.
The general says some local Afghan leaders may not even want a strong
police force because it would threaten their illicit activities.
There is a part of the Afghanistan situation that is largely outside
the control of U.S.
officials and military commanders. That
is Pakistan's inability to prevent insurgents and terrorists from having safe
havens in its tribal areas. But Defense
Secretary Gates says there is reason for hope on that front.
"What we have seen and have
been pleased about, in recent weeks, is to see the Pakistani Army once again
putting pressure in this area," said Secretary Gates. "And it is my hope that
we can work closely with the Pakistanis to prevent this from being a safe haven
that threatens both Afghanistan
and a democratic Pakistan."
But officials say the effort still
has a long way to go, and the top U.S.
military officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, made another in a
series of visits to Pakistan
this week to press officials to do more.
Meanwhile, the United States faces still another problem in Afghanistan,
this one of its own making - a series of recent air strikes in which dozens of
Afghan civilians have been accidentally killed.
When Secretary Gates visited a
combat air support headquarters at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul, he said
U.S. commanders and pilots take their duty to protect civilians seriously. But he added it is possible that more can be
"We've worked at it hard and
we're going to work at it even harder - take another look at it, see if
there's even more we can do to limit innocent folks who get killed when we're
going after our enemies," said Gates.
Officials say bringing in more
U.S. troops would help because then air strikes to play a lesser role in
securing Afghanistan's huge and largely rugged land area, where they say
insurgents target civilians, hide among them to try to entice U.S. forces to
cause civilian casualties and then exaggerate the results. Secretary Gates has offered his "sincere
condolences and personal regrets," and pledged to speed payments to
U.S. officials speak of "a
balancing act" as they try to provide forces and other resources to Iraq
and Afghanistan, and as they try to give more rest and training to U.S. troops
-- many of whom have spent three of the last five years on combat
deployments. The urgency and difficulty
of the task were on display this week as Defense Secretary Gates visited what
officials call the "still fragile" situation in Iraq and the complex
and increasingly urgent one in Afghanistan.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.