WASHINGTON– The United States’ short-term goal for Afghanistan may have been refined, but the long-term goal has stayed the same, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today on “Fox News Sunday.”

“I think the near-term objectives have been narrowed,” Gates said, referring to the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review President Barack Obama unveiled March 27. “I think our long-term objectives would still be to see a flourishing democracy in Afghanistan.

“But I think what we need to focus on … is making headway and reversing the Taliban’s momentum and strengthening the Afghan army and police, and really going after al-Qaida, as the president said,” the secretary said.When all is said and done, about 68,000 U.S. troops will be on the ground in Afghanistan to help achieve this goal. They will be supplemented with another 35,000 or so European and other partners’ troops, Gates said.

While ground commanders may have wanted more than the 17,000 troops the president has committed, the 2009 requirements Army Gen. David D. McKiernan has established have been fulfilled, Gates said. McKiernan is the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan.

“I don’t think I’ve ever in several decades ran into a ground commander who thought he had enough troops,” the secretary said. “[But] I have not sent any requests for units or troops to the president that he has not approved.”

While additional troops from allies or partner countries are welcome, the larger need from these entities is help with civilian experts, Gates said.

“What I think we’re really interested in for the longer term from our partners and allies is helping us with this civilian surge,” he said. “[This would be helpful] in terms of experts in agriculture and finance and governance and so on to help us improve on the situation inside Afghanistan, give a sense of forward progress on the part of the Afghan people.”

Police trainers also would be a great help, he added.

Gates said he still considers al-Qaida a serious threat with the capability to plan attacks, and has metastasized with elements in North Africa, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. While these factions aren’t directly controlled by al-Qaida in western Pakistan, they get training, guidance and inspiration from there.

The president, he said, understands this is a tough fight and the United States is in it until it’s successful. That will be when al-Qaida is no longer a threat to the nation, Gates said, and when there is no danger of Afghanistan or the western part of Pakistan providing al-Qaida safe havens. That is what the new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy aims to accomplish.

“I think he’s been clear, and frankly, it was my view in our discussions that we don’t want to settle on this strategy and then pursue it blindly and openendedly,” Gates said. “That’s why I felt very strongly that toward the end of the year, or about a year from now, we need to re-evaluate this strategy and see if we’re making progress.”

There are concerns about reports that the Pakistani intelligence service is in contact with some extremist groups operating from the country; however, the reports are not surprising, Gates said.

“The reality is the Pakistanis have had contact with these groups since they were fighting the Soviets 20 or 25 years ago, when I was first dealing with the Pakistanis on this,” he said. “What we need to do is try and help the Pakistanis understand that these groups are now an existential threat to them, and that we will be there as a steadfast ally for Pakistan, that they can count on us.”

Gates also fielded questions on North Korea and the country’s claim that it’s prepared to launch a communications satellite in a few days. The country has moved a missile to the launch pad.

“I don’t know anyone at a senior level in the American government who does not believe this technology is intended as a mask for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Gates said. “The reality is that the Six-Party Talks really have not made any headway anytime recently.

“If this is [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il’s welcoming present to a new president, launching a missile like this and threatening to have a nuclear test, I think it says a lot about the imperviousness of this regime in North Korea to any kind of diplomatic overtures,” he said.

Economic sanctions may be needed in North Korea and Iran before diplomacy will work, Gates said.

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