ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT– The new commander of U.S. Central Command brings experience from Iraq that he can apply to the region as a whole, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today. Gates spoke to reporters traveling with him after a stop at Kings Bay Naval Base, Ga., where he visited the Trident submarine the USS Rhode Island. Earlier in the day, he presided at the ceremony where Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey passed the CENTCOM flag to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.

The need to integrate military and civilian efforts is a theme common to both Iraq – where Petraeus served as the commander during the surge – and Afghanistan – which is now part of his command, and Petraeus “brings a broad strategic understanding of the challenges we face,” Gates said.

The secretary said that Petraeus also surrounds himself with highly talented people. Gates called the general a “magnet” for these people and he expects Petraeus will do the same at Tampa. These people “bring a lot of creativity, a lot of experience, a lot of background in this that will help him in formulating broader strategies for the entire command and specifically Afghanistan,” Gates said.

Gates said that at the core of any solution in Afghanistan is the rapid expansion of Afghan military forces.

“Because this needs to be an Afghan war, not an American war and not a NATO war,” he said. “There is very broad support among all the coalition partners for expansion of the Afghan National Army.”

The Afghan government wants an Army of 134,000, but it may not stop there. Gates pointed out that in Iraq – a country with four million fewer people and covering a smaller geographic area – there are 1 million people involved in some aspect of national security.

The army expansion is the long-term solution in Afghanistan, Gates said. Army Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, has asked for three more brigade combat teams for the nation. The secretary said that one of the first calls for additional troops should be to play a training role.

“I think we would be making a terrible mistake if this ends up being called America’s war,” he said. “This is the Afghans’ war for their own country.”

Afghanistan and Iraq must remain the priorities for Petraeus at Central Command, but there are a lot of other areas that need attention.

“He needs to be the one who has the overarching view, in terms of trying to put us on the same path toward success in Afghanistan, that he put us on in Iraq,” the secretary said.

Gates paid Petraeus the extreme compliment of comparing him to Dwight D. Eisenhower. “One of my favorite (General of the Army George C.) Marshall quotes was about Eisenhower, whom he described as a model of a modern commander: part general, part diplomat, part administrator,” Gates said. “I think that’s an apt description of David Petraeus.”

Gates said that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan needs greater coherence, and he thinks Kai Eide – the United Nations ambassador who coordinates reconstruction in Afghanistan – needs more support and assets. “As an example, Kai Eide does not have a database of what all the different countries (or non-governmental organizations) are doing or spending (in Afghanistan),” Gates said.

The secretary promised Eide that the United States would start the process.

“It’s going to be hard for him to get the economic piece of it and the governance piece of it more coherent if he doesn’t know what everybody is doing,” Gates said.

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ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT– The new commander of U.S. Central Command brings experience…