By Lisa Daniel of American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2011 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates welcomed Afghanistan's defense and interior ministers to the Pentagon today for the first of what officials expect to be regular meetings to sustain a long-term military-to-military relationship.
The administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai already has made much progress, and the Afghan national security forces have made "tremendous progress" in helping to secure the country, Gates said. The growth of Afghanistan's army and national police and their increasing ability to lead security operations has been "truly impressive," he added.
More than 5,000 Afghan forces have been killed in action since 2006, the secretary noted, adding that their sacrifice is "something we appreciate and honor."
Wardak said the Afghan casualties "are our patriotic duty," and added that Afghans are "extremely grateful for the sacrifices of your sons and daughters who fought from so far away."
"I strongly believe that our greatest tribute to them will be to realize the objectives of those brave soldiers who paid the ultimate price," he added.
Afghans have "profound gratitude and everlasting appreciation" to the United States, Wardak said. He added to Gates, "We are thankful for your personal engagement and leadership, ... and I believe we will prevail."
Afghan leaders are looking for a closer and stronger relationship with U.S. leaders, Wardak said. "Whatever we have achieved, we could not have accomplished without your support," he said.
Afghanistan had only a very basic foundation when U.S. forces began operations there in the fall of 2001 to drive out the Taliban, and clear progress has taken place since then, Wardak said.
Though plans call for Afghanistan's security forces to be responsible for the entire country's security by the end of 2014, Afghanistan still will need U.S. help, Wardak said. "I do strongly believe that for Afghanistan to survive in that very volatile region, we need your help beyond 2014," he said.
The meeting was the first of the U.S.-Afghanistan Security Consultations Forum, which Gates said he established "as an institution beyond 2014," when U.S. military forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan.
The forum included Michèle Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy; Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and other defense officials to discuss building long-term cooperation between the two countries, as well as issues of immediate importance, according to a Defense Department statement.
The secretary said he hopes the forum would meet twice a year to discuss shared expectations for Afghanistan, to set specific goals and objectives, and to demonstrate to others in the Central Asia region that the U.S.-Afghanistan partnership is putting Afghanistan on a path of improvement.
The meetings included a review of security gains across Afghanistan in 2010, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where improved security provided by a surge of Afghan and NATO forces has enabled greater Afghan freedom of movement, commerce, and development, officials said.
Talks focused on how to build on those gains this year, officials added, particularly in transitioning security to the Afghans.
Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan told reporters that the leaders would meet for several hours today.
"This is looking to the future for a sustained and enduring relationship with Afghanistan as a country, but also with the Afghan security forces," he said.
The Afghan ministers and Gates also will discuss the gains of the last year and what needs to happen in the future to continue the progress, Lapan added.
"What will it look like past 2014?" he said. "These discussions will look beyond at what our relationship will be and what U.S. military support will be needed after that date."
(Jim Garamone of American Forces Press Service contributed to this report.)
Robert M. Gates
Thursday, February 24, 2011