The day after President Obama approved the deployment of 17,000 additional U.S. troops for Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he will ask NATO allies to also send more troops to help provide security for the country's presidential and provincial elections, scheduled for August. But the secretary says in the long term the allies are more likely to provide civilian help to the Afghan government than additional troops.
Gates spoke on his way to Krakow, Poland for a meeting of NATO defense ministers.
The secretary's emphasis on civilian help from NATO reflects the recognition in the U.S. government that the allies have provided just about all the troops they are willing to provide, currently about 32,000. Gates says he still wants more NATO troops for the elections in August, for which he says the commitment has been disappointing, but he says those may be short-term deployments.
"We really need additional help on the civilian side, there needs to be a strengthening on the civilian side, as we are strengthening on the military side. And frankly I think that it may be, I hope that it may be, easier for our allies to do that than significant troop increases, especially for the longer term," he said.
Secretary Gates says the NATO civilians can help on projects related to improving the performance of the Afghan government, improving the legal system and fighting corruption and the drug trade.
He also called on NATO members to send more military trainers to Afghanistan to help the effort to increase the size of the country's army to 134,000. The Afghanistan war is not popular in many NATO countries, and many leaders are concerned that sending more troops, who could potentially suffer more casualties, would hurt them with voters, or even bring down their coalitions.
President Obama has ordered a senior-level Afghanistan strategy review, with the results expected before he meets with his NATO counterparts at their summit at the beginning of April. But on Tuesday the president approved the deployment of 17,000 more U.S. troops, which will bring the total U.S. commitment to about 55,000 by June.
Secretary Gates says the troops are needed to improve security, regardless of exactly what strategy the president adopts.
"I think that these additional numbers give us a better chance to provide the kind of security for the population that is necessary, frankly, for economic development and for governance to take hold, and so on," he said.
But the secretary says how long the troops stay, and whether they are replaced when their tours of duty end, will depend on the outcome of the strategy review. He also says the deployments will result in a reduction of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, because some of the units being sent to Afghanistan had been scheduled for Iraq deployments.
Secretary Gates is the only member of the cabinet of former-President George W. Bush asked to stay on by President Obama, and the Krakow meeting Thursday and Friday is the first time the secretary is meeting with his NATO colleagues since the change of U.S. administrations a month ago. He said he is bringing new message.
"The message is that it is a new administration. And the administration is prepared, as the president's decision made clear yesterday, to make additional commitments to Afghanistan, but there clearly will be expectations that the allies must do more as well," he said.
Secretary Gates also says there are ways non-NATO nations can continue to help in Afghanistan, particularly by providing money to help pay for the army expansion and civilian development projects.