By Kristin Roberts
WASHINGTON, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Facing rising violence in Afghanistan, NATO must translate military gains into economic progress next year by bringing development to the country’s remote areas, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday.
The Pentagon chief said U.S. and NATO troops had some success in Afghanistan in 2007, despite a strengthened insurgency. He noted the success of NATO and Afghan forces in retaking the town of Musa Qala this month.
"The challenge for 2008 will be to sustain the successes we’ve had, to hang on to places that we have cleared, like Musa Qala, and create the conditions in which further economic development can go forward," Gates said.
Insurgent violence in Afghanistan is at its highest level since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Suicide bombings have climbed 30 percent in some areas, according to U.S. military officers.
Military fatalities in the war, which until late this year has been largely overshadowed by combat in Iraq, hit their highest mark in 2007 — with 115 U.S. service members killed.
The United States has 26,000 troops in Afghanistan. Half of those service members are part of NATO’s 40,000-strong force.
Gates linked increased violence in part to more aggressive action by NATO against the Taliban.
AFGHAN SECURITY FORCES
Still, NATO commanders face shortages in the war zone. NATO has failed to fulfill requests from its generals for more troops and equipment to fight the Taliban and more trainers to build the Afghan security forces.
According to Gates, NATO needs 7,500 troops. That includes 3,500 trainers, mostly for the Afghan police, and three combat battalions. Commanders need helicopters and other equipment.
NATO and U.S. forces also must prepare for the possibility of an al Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan, U.S. defense and military officials have said over the past month.
Gates said al Qaeda has regrouped in Pakistan’s remote Afghan border area and has started to focus attacks on the Pakistani government.
"There is no question that some of the areas in the frontier area have become areas where Al Qaeda has reestablished itself," he said. "But so far, we haven’t seen any significant consequence of that in Afghanistan itself.
Gates, who took over from Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon a year ago this week, and other Bush administration officials repeatedly criticized European allies this year for failing to deliver more resources to Afghanistan.
But, Gates has adopted a different tone since his meeting with NATO defense ministers in Scotland last week. He said some governments find it politically impossible to authorize their troops to take on more of the fighting in Afghanistan.
"Continuing to publicly go after our allies for things, to do things that politically are just impossible for them is probably not very productive," he said in his last press briefing of the year. (Editing by David Storey)