FORWARD OPERATING BASE AIRBORNE, Afghanistan, May 8, 2009 – History provides an important lesson on the perils of ignoring Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today as he visited this remote site in Wardak province. “We don’t dare turn our backs on Afghanistan,” Gates told reporters after meeting with local elders and tribal leaders and 10th Mountain Division troops deployed here. “If there is one lesson that I draw from the past, it is the importance of our staying engaged, and the international community staying engaged.”

After the Soviets were expelled from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Gates said, the United States and the international community “basically turned our backs” on Afghanistan. Four years later, in 1993, al-Qaida launched made its first attack on the World Trade Center in New York. A car bomb failed to bring the building down, but it killed six people. Undeterred, and operating with impunity in Afghanistan, al-Qaida hatched the plan that killed thousands on Sept. 11, 2001.

“And if there is a lesson for Americans and the international community, it is that we don’t dare turn our backs on Afghanistan,” Gates said. “This will work if we stay engaged and finish.”

A successful outcome in Afghanistan is important in ways that can’t compare with anywhere else in the world, he said, citing the danger of letting Afghanistan return to being a safe haven for terrorists. “We weren’t attacked by anyplace else,” said he said. “We were attacked out of Afghanistan.”

During a talk with soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Gates emphasized their role in preventing that from happening.

“What you are doing out here is really important,” he said, reiterating that neglecting Afghanistan in the past help to create the circumstances that led to the 9/11 attacks.

“We paid the consequences for it in 2001. We won’t do that again,” he told the soldiers. “You all are here to make sure we don’t do that again.”

Gates called his discussions in Afghanistan over the past two days “some of the most encouraging” he’s had, noting the Afghans’ commitment to preserving freedom and democracy and providing a better way of life for their people.

“They want security. They want jobs,” he said. “They want a different life.”

The Afghans don’t like the Taliban or what its members bring to Afghanistan, he said. “And we’ve just got to help them keep these guys at bay.”

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FORWARD OPERATING BASE AIRBORNE, Afghanistan, May 8, 2009 – History provides an important lesson…