Investment in Afghanistan Makes Economic Sense, Gates Says

WASHINGTON – Tough economic times are no excuse for the…

WASHINGTON – Tough economic times are no excuse for the international community to withhold support for Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters returning with him Nov. 21 from a two-day defense ministerial in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Gates called it shortsighted for some to consider cutting troop support or funding in Afghanistan, particularly in light of the threats that remain there.

“They’ll have to weigh the consequences of not doing it,” he told reporters.

The secretary said during a news conference in Cornwallis, Canada, that Afghanistan poses “some significant challenges,” with insurgents finding sanctuary in the western border area and new recruits joining the insurgency during the past two years.

A key to countering this, he said, is to continue going after the Taliban, al-Qaida and other threats while building Afghan security forces so they can assume full responsibility for the country’s security.

NATO is building a trust fund to underwrite the effort and nearly doubling the Afghan security forces to 134,000 members. Despite its estimated $17 billion price tag, Gates called it a solid investment.

“There is a huge disproportion between what it costs to train and equip an Afghan soldier and what it costs to put an American soldier in Afghanistan, trained and equipped and sustained,” he said. “It is an order of many orders of magnitude, [and that’s] true of other countries as well.”

Ultimately, he said, it’s in everyone’s best interest to speed up the process in building up the Afghan national security forces. “Over the long term, your interests in getting out [of Afghanistan] are served by making a contribution to expanding the Afghan army.”

Gates said during a NATO defense ministerial last month in Bucharest, Hungary, that he encountered no “push-back” on either the expansion of the Afghan National Army or creation of a NATO trust fund to help pay for it. “I think there is a broad understanding that, ultimately, the expansion of the Afghan security forces is everybody’s ticket out of there,” he told reporters.

Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay, who hosted last week’s meeting, reiterated the call for other NATO countries to support the effort through trainers, equipment or funding. “Other countries should be under no illusion,” MacKay said. “We are still asking for them to pick up the slack and share the burden.”

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