WASHINGTON (May 14, 2009) – Without success on the Pakistan side of the border, efforts to rid both it and Afghanistan of the Taliban will be significantly harder, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee today while testifying on the fiscal 2010 defense budget request.
That success will be more difficult if the Pakistani government refuses to take the fight to the militants within its country’s borders, Gates said. But traditional thought may prove hard to overcome.
“For all of Pakistan’s history, India has been the existential threat,” he said. “I think actually it was only with the Taliban’s going too far and moving their operations into Buner, just 60 miles or so from Islamabad, that for the first time they really got the attention of the Pakistani government.”
Recent actions of the Pakistani government and its army have indicated the government now understands the nature of the threat to it and is prepared to take action to deal with the threat, Gates said.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also spoke before the committee. He acknowledged increasing support from the Pakistani people to deter the militants’ threat to their country and the government’s stepped-up counterinsurgency operations, but he expressed reservations about sustainability.
“My biggest question about these operations is [the government’s] ability to sustain them over time,” he said. “Right now I’m encouraged by what’s happened, but I certainly withhold any judgment about where it goes, because of the lack … of historic sustainment.”
In addition to the counterinsurgency effort on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Gates said, success in Afghanistan also relies on turning the country’s agriculture away from the poppy crop that supplies drug traffickers and finances criminal and terrorist activities.
“Before 30 years of war, Afghanistan … had a strong agricultural sector, and in fact exported … a variety of food,” he said. “So the notion of getting them to adopt alternative crops is not fanciful, but we have to figure out a strategy where they get the money and the seeds and the ability to sustain their families before they get rid of their poppy crop.”
The secretary acknowledged Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s concerns about precision coalition airstrikes and their effect on Afghan civilians, but added that the use of airpower can’t be eliminated. Forgoing that capability, he said, would be like trying to fight the war “with one hand tied behind our back.”
“That said,” he continued, “one of the charges, I think, for the new commanders, will be to look at how we can do this in a way that further limits innocent civilian casualties in Afghanistan, but also gets the truth out to the Afghan people about what’s really going on.”