WASHINGTON – Though the National Guard has a role in reconstruction missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a temporary one, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told an audience at the Joint Senior Leadership Conference at the National Harbor yesterday.

“I think this is basically a civilian task, and we ought to be there to help them,” Gates said. “We ought to be there when we’re in a situation like Afghanistan — where the security may not be as strong enough for civilians to go in — to have people in there working on agricultural development and so on as the first phase so that we aren’t waiting too long to begin showing people ways in which their lives can improve on a daily basis.”

Gates said he believes that effort should involve projects that can be done quickly and can show people that their lives have changed for the better by having troops in their village. “My own view is we need to be very cautious about some of the big projects that people think about for development,” he said.

Gates suggested that building a well, an all-weather road for local farmers, a bridge or a one-room schoolhouse would be appropriate projects. “You can do a lot of these small projects within the framework of the dollars that we have available,” he said. “But the most important thing about them is that the Afghans see them, and the local Afghans see their lives getting better because we’re there.”

The first stage of that effort, he said, can be done by military forces and especially by the National Guard. “But longer term,” he added, “that mission has to go to the civilian side of the government.”

Gates said correct sequencing is the key to these missions, noting the approach Army Gen. David H. Petraeus used when he commanded coalition forces in Iraq.

“As soon as we’ve cleared an area — literally the next day or the same day — we need somebody in there with some money and some capability that begins putting young men to work and putting a shovel or a broom in their hands instead of a gun,” he said. “And it seems to me that’s often the situation where the Guard and the expertise in the Guard can provide the initial response in areas in Afghanistan until the security situation is stabilized enough for the civilians to come in.”

For almost two and a half years, Gates has said he believes the government’s civilian experts in these areas have been neglected for too long. When he retired as director of central intelligence in 1993, Gates said, the U.S. Agency for International Development had about 16,000 employees who deployed around the world to provide expertise in agricultural development, rule of law, governance and irrigation systems.

“It was an expeditionary agency,” he said. “They expected to live in primitive conditions, and they expected to have situations that were occasionally dangerous. And that was part of their career, and that was part of what they wanted to do with their lives.”

USAID now has about 3,000 employees, and it’s mainly a contracting agency, Gates said. “So, we’ve lost that civilian capacity that played such an important role for us in the developing world all through the Cold War.”

Under the last two administrations, Gates said, the State Department is beginning to get the kind of funding that’s needed to rebuild these capabilities, “but it’s still a ways in the future and, in my view, there has to be a role” for these civilian experts.

The upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review has the development of partnership relationships in helping other countries to build their capacity as one of its central themes “so we don’t have to send soldiers” to those countries, the secretary said.

Gates said the military also will have a role. He noted that relationships that exist between the National Guard and other countries in the State Partnership Program can help in building this capacity.

“Every time I meet with a minister of defense of a country where we have those kinds of relationships, they bring it up with me,” he said.

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