News | March 10, 2010

Visit reinforces Gates' confidence in Afghan strategy

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates participates in a promotion ceremony during a visit with the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, at a forward operating base March 9 in Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates participates in a promotion ceremony during a visit with the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, at a forward operating base March 9 in Afghanistan.

NOW ZAD, Afghanistan (March 9, 2010) – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ visits with Marines here and with soldiers at Forward Operating Base Frontenac in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province have reinforced his belief that the strategy is working in Afghanistan.

“I feel reinforced that the path we’re on is the right path, but it will take a long time,” Gates told reporters after walking through Now Zad – a city that was a ghost town for four years.

People are moving back to the city, and that’s indicative of what’s happening in other areas, thanks to a fundamental change in counterinsurgency strategy in the country, Gates said.

The secretary noted that Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s strategy looks to protect the population. “For him, the metric of success is not the number of Taliban killed, but the number of Afghans protected, because only when they feel more secure are they more willing to cooperate with the Afghan government, with us and with the other allies,” Gates said. “I think we’re beginning to see the benefits of that.”

The secretary met with young soldiers and Marines serving in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and he said they understand the new strategy. “They’d like to be able to fire more warning shots, but they understand for every innocent person they hurt, they likely recruit a number of Taliban,” Gates said. “They got it, and they understood why General McChrystal has taken the approach he has.”

Gates said he makes these visits to get what he calls “the ground truth.”

“These incredible young people, the enthusiasm they have, and they have some good feedback about partnering with the Afghans,” he said. “And talking to them directly always in some ways is more reliable than what you see on a PowerPoint slide.”

During his walk, the secretary stopped and spoke with Afghan storekeepers and families. The walk would have been unthinkable six months ago, when the Taliban controlled what was once the second-largest city in the province. When the Marines first went into the city, they faced tough opposition and found mines and improvised explosive devices everywhere. Now, more than 50 shops are operating in the city, and people are returning.

“Having the roads de-mined and cleared will let them have more customers,” Gates said. “Right now, most of their customers seem to be from the Afghan national security forces.”

Now Zad is not a poster city. The shops are mud-walled, one-story huts facing the street. Garage doors, not windows, secure the premises. People hang out in front of the stores for lack of any worthwhile employment. The “clear, hold, build” strategy will require time here, Gates acknowledged.

“You have to begin with the fact that it’s a poor country to start with and has been through 30 years of war,” Gates said. “You have to have some context here: Build to what? It seems to me that somebody having a roof over their head and being able to work their farm and send their children to school – for a lot of Afghans today, that sounds like a pretty good life.”

Gates spoke about upcoming operations in Kandahar province, and said coalition forces want to do the same kind of advance shaping operations they did in Marja for the operation now under way in central Helmand. The idea in Kandahar – Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the political home of the Taliban – is to get tribal elders involved in governance, the secretary said.

“Kandahar is a different problem altogether, with more people, more infrastructure,” the secretary said. It will be an altogether more complex operation, he added, which will include operating against criminal gangs that have used uncertainty in the city to prey on the people.

The Marines use places like Now Zad as a base, but they spread out. “General McChrystal calls this the ‘ink blot strategy,’” Gates said. “You establish control of the lines of communication, highways, markets, things like that. I think it’s a mistake to see this as Fort Apache, where everyone is inside the stockade and not doing anything else. [The Marines] are mostly outside on missions miles from here.”

Earlier in the day, Gates had lunch with junior enlisted soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry, in Kandahar province. They gave him frank feedback on equipment and operating with the Afghans, and the secretary said he will go back to Washington with their recommendations.

One medic told the secretary that radio packs that leaders carry are causing back troubles and interfere with flak vest protection. “So we’re going to go back and look at that, and there were several things like that,” he said. “I always learn things when I come out here.”

Gates said the young servicemembers he met today are inspirational.

“They are resilient, they know what they’ve lost, and yet they seem very committed and very much with their heads in the game,” he said. “They know what they are here to do, and they are clearly prepared to do whatever it takes personally to make it happen. I was very impressed.”