By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
MELBOURNE, Australia, Nov. 8, 2010 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today that he hopes the Taliban think July of next year is an end date for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan.
"It's not," Gates said during a roundtable with Australian and American reporters at the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations. "They're going to be very surprised come August, September, October and November, when most American forces are still there, and still coming after them."
President Barack Obama's plan for July is to begin handing over security responsibility to the Afghans, based on conditions in any given area. The transition of security responsibilities to Afghan security forces will be a years-long process, Gates said, noting that NATO heads of government will discuss the transition at the alliance's summit meeting in Lisbon, Portugal, later this month.
"One of the agenda items for the Lisbon summit is to embrace [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai's goal of completing the transfer of security responsibility to Afghanistan by 2014," the secretary said. "So I think that's the kind of time frame we're looking at."
But even that won't be the end of U.S. and worldwide engagement in Afghanistan, Gates said. "We're going to remain a partner of Afghanistan even after our troops are gone," he told the reporters. "We walked away from Afghanistan in 1988, and we saw the consequences of that in 2001."
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also participated in the roundtable discussion and said helping Pakistan also is a priority in the area, noting that the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan is still the "epicenter of terrorism in the world."
The United States must continue to engage with Pakistan and must work to rebuild trust with the leaders, the chairman said. That, too, is a long-range project, he added.
"It's going to take time, and we'd like it to move more quickly," Mullen said. "We continue to support them in training and to work toward a strategic partnership. In the long run, that solves the problem of Pakistan not continuing as a safe haven."
The United States and its international partners will help Afghanistan with development, training, equipment and so on, Gates said, and the balance between security and development will change as the security situation in the country improves. Security needs are paramount now, the secretary said, but over time that will improve and the Afghan government, aided by civilian agencies, will be the primary means of engagement. "We don't see this as a relationship that ends when the security transition is completed," he said.
The 2014 date for security transition is realistic, both Gates and Mullen said. "There's an awful lot that has been fleshed out," the chairman said. "We've accomplished a lot in training the Afghan security forces over the last year in terms of their structure, their training, their curriculum, etc."
Gates stressed that any decision about where Afghans take the lead and where NATO forces can thin out will be based on conditions. Commanders in Afghanistan will make their recommendations. Civilian leaders in the alliance and with partner countries such as Australia will review those recommendations. Finally, the Afghan government itself will examine the recommendations and make an assessment as to whether the forces have the capability to ensure security, the secretary explained.
"I wouldn't be surprised if there are some recommendations as early as next spring, in terms of districts or provinces, that might be candidates for transition to Afghan security at that time," Gates said.
Security, governance and Afghan civilian capacity are three major areas that will be measured as the transition process moves along. Primary among these is the security situation and the ability of the Afghan national security forces including local police to maintain security.
The secretary said officials chose the word "transition" for the process very carefully.
"When the debate began a year ago on this, we used the word transfer," he said. "But transfer connoted that, 'Today you have all this support structure, including all our troops and such and tomorrow you have nothing.'"
Transition describes a more gradual approach, he said. "You will see a thinning of the foreign forces in a district or province so there is a bit of a safety net under the Afghans as they take charge," the secretary said. "I think this makes a lot sense."
Australia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, mostly in Oruzgun province in Regional Command South a hot area. Australia has lost 21 servicemembers in the country. U.S. and Australian troops are again working side by side in the province, and that was a matter of discussion during the ministerial meetings.
"We discussed Afghanistan, and we are very pleased with the way Australia and the United States are combining and operating very well on the ground in Oruzgun province," Australian Defense Minister Steven Smith said during a news conference at Government House here.
The U.S. and Australian leaders said they agreed the strategy in Afghanistan is working. All said that although Afghanistan is challenging, there is progress. The strategy takes patience, they emphasized.
The end game in Afghanistan must involve some degree of reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Gates said.
"It must be on the terms that the Afghan government can accept," he said. "My personal opinion is that the Taliban need to clearly see that the prospects for success have diminished dramatically, and that they will lose, for them ... to engage in reconciliation. It would be difficult to achieve those circumstances before next spring."
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