WASHINGTON (May 17, 2009) – The Afghan national army could lead operations in Afghanistan in two to four years, with the U.S. playing a support role, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said during a May 8 interview, portions of which aired on CBS’ “60 Minutes” Sunday.
As the handover of responsibilities to national forces in Afghanistan develops, it is likely to mirror security progress that unfolded in Iraq following the surge of U.S. troops there, Gates said during the interview, conducted with Katie Couric in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul.
“I think what you’ll see is the same kind of evolution here that you have seen in Iraq, and that is where the Iraqis have increasingly taken the lead and we have increasingly receded into the background,” he said. “I think that’s what will happen here over time.”
The Afghan national army has about 86,000 troops with a “significant number” of battalions leading joint operations with U.S. and NATO International Security Assistance Forces, Gates said.
The defense secretary said the Afghan army is showing progress as the size of its ranks grows over coming years to the currently authorized number of 134,000 troops. He also expressed confidence in the Pakistani army’s ability to root out terrorist safe havens along its border with Afghanistan, but he used measured terms in providing his assessment, acknowledging that the situation is subject to change.
“War is inherently unpredictable, okay, and the enemy always has a vote,” he said. “But I think that if things go according to the way that our commanders are planning and the strategies that we’re following, that would be our anticipation.”
Some 47,000 U.S. forces serve in Afghanistan – a number that is rising as 17,000 additional American troops arrive there. Meanwhile, NATO member countries and partners have more than 32,000 forces in country.
Gates, who has previously criticized the NATO contribution, reiterated his frustration at the disparity of force levels.
“I’ve been disappointed with NATO’s response to this ever since I got this job,” he said, pointing out that even excluding the U.S., the has almost 2 million men under arms. “Why they can’t get more than 32,000 to Afghanistan has always been a puzzle to me.”
As the U.S. begins to implement the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy that President Barack Obama’s Administration unveiled in March, Gates described his impression of American expectations.
“I think what the people in the United States want to see is the momentum shifting to see that the strategies that we’re following are working, “ he said. “And that’s why I’ve said in nine months to a year we need to evaluate how we’re doing, to see whether, in fact, the situation is getting better.”
During the program, Couric asked Gates – who is the only cabinet secretary holdover from President George W. Bush’s administration – why he agreed to remain in his position as defense secretary. He replied: “I do it because it’s my duty.”
“I do it almost exclusively for these young men and women out here in uniform and whatever I can do to help them,” he continued. “The rest is all fluff as far as I’m concerned.”