SINGAPORE (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates Saturday urged the international community to give more aid to Afghanistan to build infrastructure, expand its military and police, and ensure security for elections this year.
“I know some in Asia have concluded that Afghanistan does not represent a strategic threat for their countries, owing in part to Afghanistan’s geographic location,” Gates told a meeting of defense ministers in Singapore.
“But the threat from failed or failing states is international in scope — whether in the security, economic or ideological realms.”
The United States leads a coalition of troops from more than 40 countries in Afghanistan and is in the midst of adding another 20,000 troops to the 38,000 already there to roll back gains by a resurgent Taliban.
The elections in August are seen as the key test of progress in Afghanistan and the success or failure of the polls will override any other events there this year, diplomats say.
Gates said he was looking to Europeans in particular to do more since previous NATO summits have identified Afghanistan as the alliance’s highest priority.
But he said there was a gap between the rhetoric in NATO and “the capabilities that our allies are prepared to put forward.”
“The need is greater than the commitment that has been made,” Gates said in response to questions from delegates at the conference.
Many NATO allies say they have already sent significant numbers of troops and have stressed that efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are about more than just military operations.
“The challenge in Afghanistan is so complex and so untraditional that it can only be met by all of us working in concert,” Gates said.
“There are a lot of challenges in front of us in Afghanistan ... It’s a desperately poor country. It’s the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world, but there’s potential. Afghanistan 35 years ago before all the wars was actually an agricultural-exporting country, and something other than poppies.”
Afghanistan’s security ultimately will depend on developing its own strong military and police forces, which the United States is spending considerable sums on, he said.
Gates praised Pakistan’s current offensive against Islamic militants, calling the Taliban resurgence an “existential threat” to the country. Pakistani forces have cleared a Taliban stronghold in the Swat valley in the northwest, but militants have retaliated with bomb attacks in cities.
“I think the fact that they have taken the kind of action, with the size of forces they have in the western part of the country, demonstrates that they understand that there is a more immediate threat to the country,” he said.
He said the United States would provide military aid and training to Pakistan to combat the militants, but his comments suggested the U.S. had no appetite for directly sending in ground troops.
“We are very sensitive to Pakistan’s sovereignty and eager to be helpful, but only as the Pakistanis want us to be helpful.”
Additional reporting by Eveline Danubrata and Kash Cheong; Editing by Bill Tarrant