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Defense Secretary Gates Cites Progress in Afghanistan

Merle David Kellerhals Jr. - Staff Writer, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Kabul that long-term success in Afghanistan ultimately will be determined by how well the Afghan government, with international support, can respond to the Afghan people and "inspire their loyalty."

Gates, in Afghanistan to check on progress since operations were expanded late last year, met March 8 in the Afghan capital with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Army General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). He also visited U.S. forces north of Kandahar March 9 to thank them for their efforts and sacrifice.

"The most pressing matter we've discussed was the major operation that President Karzai approved in Helmand province, where Afghan and international troops have succeeded in clearing almost all of Marjah and Nad Ali," Gates told reporters at a joint press conference with Karzai. "Of course, the operation in Marjah is only one of many battles to come in a much longer campaign focused on protecting the people of Afghanistan."

Gates added that since McChrystal made protecting the population the centerpiece of his military strategy, civilian casualties have been reduced.

As operations have expanded in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, Gates said, Afghan national security forces have taken on a greater role. Karzai has said his goal is to have 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police by the end of 2011. Gates said he will continue to work with NATO allies and other international partners to get more trainers and mentors to help achieve that goal.

"We're all united in wanting to see the Afghans assume greater responsibility for the security of their own country and their own people," said Gates, who last visited Afghanistan in December 2009 at the outset of expanded operations.

Soon after President Obama put McChrystal in charge of forces in Afghanistan in 2009 and after McChrystal had completed an in-depth review of the security situation there, McChrystal advised the president that the situation would deteriorate without a substantial expansion of operations and forces. But Gates said after meetings with McChrystal that the general no longer sees the situation deteriorating and that there have been a number of positive developments.

In December 2009, the president ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. forces to be sent to Afghanistan, and the international community, including NATO allies, made pledges of additional military and civilian support, Gates said. So far, about 6,000 of that additional total have been sent to Afghanistan, with the remainder expected to arrive by the end of August.

"Improvements in the relations with Pakistan have yielded tangible results and increased cooperation along the border," Gates told reporters. Afghan forces have also responded quite well to Karzai's call to join the operations to secure the country from an insurgency being waged by remnants of the former Taliban regime.

Karzai told reporters that a peace jirga, a tribal assembly, will be convened in about a month and a half and will solicit guidance from the Afghan people on how to move forward toward reintegration and reconciliation where it may be possible. Part of that reconciliation process is to convince some of the Taliban insurgents to lay down their arms and support the country, he said.

Karzai said that some of these insurgents were forced by circumstances or by other means to join the Taliban, but they are not members of that regime or the related al-Qaida terrorist network. And those insurgents who renounce violence and the Taliban and the al-Qaida network would be included in the reconciliation.

"There are, we believe, thousands of those fighting for the Taliban who do so out of economic necessity or because they or their families have been intimidated," Gates said at the press conference with Karzai. "It's important to create the conditions for them to rejoin Afghan society and rejoin the Afghan political system."

But Gates also said it is important that reconciliation be done at a time when it conforms to the terms of the Afghan government, when those who are reconciled agree to or abide by the Afghan constitution, disarm and dissociate with the Taliban and al-Qaida.

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