KHOST, Afghanistan The Afghanistan military needs more trainers and equipment in order to gain control of their country's security, the Afghan defense chief told Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Tuesday.
Gen. Bismillah Khan said that while "the U.S. has been more than generous," the Afghan army's weapons are inadequate and old, specifically its heavy artillery and armored vehicles. Speaking through an interpreter while sitting at a small table with Gates, Khan added that "we don't have enough mentors, enough advisers."
Gates told Khan that "we know your interest in small arms and mortars and we are looking for ways to expedite" the equipment. And he added that he also was well aware of the shortage of trainers a shortfall U.S. military officials said was as many as 2,000-3,000.
According to Maj. Gen. Robert Cone, the U.S. is about to begin providing M-16 rifles to the Afghans, and is poised to deliver about 10,000 a month, up to 60,000. And he said there is an ongoing effort to obtain helicopters for the Afghanistan forces, including plans for an additional 34 in the near future.
Cone said the helicopters will be key to relieving some stress on U.S. and NATO forces, which currently have to shuttle Afghan troops around the country.
"Giving the Afghans their own capabilities is the answer," said Cone, as Gates toured the training base. About 70 U.S. trainers are working there, but the bulk of the instruction is done by Afghanistan military.
In a full day of briefings and helicopter travel across the country, Gates heard a consistent theme from both U.S. and Afghan officials: Money and resources are needed to better empower the Afghan government, particularly at the local and provincial levels.
When development including schools and hospitals is endorsed and participated in by the local tribal leaders, he was told, the people become more invested in their own security and are more likely to turn back insurgents.
Early in the day, Gates met with NATO coalition commanders then toured Afghanistan's main military training compound outside Kabul where as many as 3,000 Afghan troops at one time get instruction.
In Khost province, near the snowcapped peaks along the Pakistan border, Gates heard from military, civil affairs, U.S. State Department and USAID representatives who said an additional several hundred million dollars in investment could make the security gains there irreversible.
This year has been the most violent since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Insurgency-related violence has claimed nearly 6,200 lives, according to a tally of figures from Afghan and Western officials. The number of attacks has surged, including roadside bombings and suicide assaults.
As Gates was heading for Kabul from Djibouti, a U.S. defense official expressed concern that one reason for increased violence in Afghanistan could be an escalation of al-Qaida activity in addition to the ongoing Taliban insurgency.
On his third trip to Afghanistan, Gates said he has not yet seen data on any uptick in al-Qaida activity, but increasing levels of violence in the country are clear and that he plans to talk about it with other defense leaders from NATO nations operating in Afghanistan.
Gates was expected to meet later Tuesday with President Hamid Karzai to discuss the increased violence, as well as other issues.
As if to underscore the concern, a suicide car bomber targeted a NATO convoy in Kabul on Tuesday not long after Gates had passed along the same road, which had been closed to other traffic while Gates was traveling on it. NATO said 22 civilians who were near the blast were wounded.
"I'm not worried about a backslide as much as I am (about) how we continue the momentum going forward," Gates told reporters in Djibouti on Monday before he left for Kabul. "One of the clear concerns that we all have is that in the last two or three years there has been a continuing increase in the overall level of violence."
A senior defense official said the U.S. military is concerned and is looking for definitive signs of greater activity by al-Qaida and foreign fighters, but the U.S. has not seen enough proof to draw any final conclusions. The official discussed the terrorist network on condition of anonymity because of the security concerns.
The U.S. military has been pushing the idea that more attention must be paid to tribal leaders in the provinces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, rather than focusing all the attention on buttressing the central governments of those two nations. The thinking is that the locals are closer to the community and their people, and thus can better police their own streets.
Military officials have long said that the Taliban in Afghanistan is being resupplied from outside the country, possibly by militants in Pakistan crossing the border, or through support from other countries in the region sympathetic to the militants.Currently there are about 26,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, including 13,000 with the NATO-led coalition. The other 13,000 U.S. troops are training the Afghan forces and hunting al-Qaida terrorists.
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Defense Department: www.defenselink.mil