HONOLULU (Oct. 19, 2009) – As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates travels this week to Japan and South Korea before heading to a NATO defense ministers conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, he’s expected to ensure the issue of support for Afghanistan remains solidly on front burner.
In a break from the frequent national defense team sessions President Barack Obama has called in recent weeks as he reevaluates the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Gates will be on the road this week, shoring up long-standing alliances.
But senior defense officials traveling with him confirm that he’ll also press for more coalition support at every stop along the way.
In Tokyo, the secretary will get his first challenge in that regard as he becomes the first U.S. Cabinet member to meet with the newly installed Japanese Democratic Party government. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced last week that Japan’s naval refueling mission that supports the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan will end in January.
Japan’s Maritime Defense Force has been deploying a supply ship and destroyer to provide fuel and water to U.S. and British naval ships in the Indian Ocean since 2001. The mission will end after the agreement, which has been renewed annually for the past eight years, expires.
“The refueling operation has been of great value to the coalition in support of operations in the Indian Ocean,” a senior defense official traveling with the secretary told reporters. Should Japan go ahead with plans to end this support, he said, the United States “would certainly support their contributions in any other way if they can't continue the refueling operation.”
Another defense official offered a stronger assessment of U.S. expectations. “Whether it's refueling or anything else,” he said, “we would hope and expect that Japan makes a significant contribution that's commensurate with its role in global affairs.”
Gates has no plans to take a specific list of alternatives, and recognizes that nonmilitary contributions can be extremely important, the official said.
In addition to the refueling operation, Japan is one of the biggest donors to the efforts in Afghanistan – pledging $2 billion for the cause since 2001, of which $1.79 billion has been implemented, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said. Those funds have supported reconstruction, humanitarian assistance, governance and security efforts. Japan paid $125 million that covered all Afghan National Police salaries for six months, he added.
Of $500 million Japan pledged at the Paris donor’s conference in June 2008, $300 million supported Afghanistan’s August elections, he said.
Japan also contributes to police training.
“A lot of the very valuable contributions in Afghanistan are on the development side and the training side – not just with the military, but with police and other aspects of civil life,” the official said. “It can cover a wide range of activities.”
Gates is expected to take a similar message to South Korea, encouraging more of the development support it is providing in Afghanistan, including a hospital and vocational training center.
“We would hope that Korea would continue to see it in their interest to provide aid of whatever form is appropriate to Afghanistan as we try and make sure that the development continues there,” the official said.
Gates’ visits will reinforce a message he sent in May when he called on U.S. allies in Asia to do more to support the fight in Afghanistan. The secretary emphasized during an address at the “Shangri La Dialogue” Asia Security Summit in Singapore that although Afghanistan is halfway around the world from Asia, what ultimately happens in Afghanistan will have a profound effect on Asia.
“Failure in a place like Afghanistan would have international reverberations, and undoubtedly, many of them would be felt in this part of the world,” he warned.
Gates’ trip will wrap up later this week in Bratislava, where the issue of committing more NATO troops to ISAF is expected to be front and center when he meets with his NATO counterparts. NATO has made no decision to send additional forces to Afghanistan, although Great Britain announced last week that it will increase its force by 500 troops, to 9,500.
NATO military chiefs called for more troops and resources for Afghanistan’s security forces during the past weekend. However, the chiefs did not say where these additional resources would come from, an alliance spokesman said.
Here in Honolulu, Gates’ first stop during his whirlwind around-the-world trip, he’s expected to note the contributions U.S. Pacific Command has made in Afghanistan during a Pacom change-of-command ceremony today.
Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating will pass command of the oldest and largest U.S. combatant command to Navy Adm. Robert M. Willard. The command includes 250,000 U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region who support operations not only in their own theater, but also in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Pacom has provided about 30,000 troops and manned five combat-ready carrier strike groups and 44 ships participating in three expeditionary strike groups supporting operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, defense officials said.