Gates Tells Troops in Afghanistan 'Sense of Duty' His Reason to Stay as Secretary of Defense
News in Balance:
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Dec. 11, 2008 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told several hundred troops here today that a sense of duty caused him to agree to stay on in his current job through the administration change.
Gates opened the session at the headquarters for the southern regional command by joking about his recent re-appointment as defense secretary -- which at one time he was looking to avoid.
“I now have a better appreciation of what it’s like to be stop-lossed,” he joked, referring to a program that allows the Army to retain soldiers in critical specialties beyond expiration of their enlistment.
Gates said the crucial junctures of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and upcoming critical budget decisions at the Pentagon are among the reasons he chose to stay on the job. But, he said, the singular reason came down to a sense of duty.
If hundreds of thousands of young Americans are doing their duty without fail, Gates said, he had no choice but to do otherwise.
“Each of you could have done something easier, safer and probably better paid. But you chose to step forward to wear this country’s uniform,” Gates said. “You chose to volunteer -- in some cases re-volunteer -- knowing full well that a deployment to a combat theater was the most likely result.”
Standing on a stage with a large American flag draped across a backdrop made of olive-drab green parachutes, Gates said that in the past two years he has come to realize that the priorities of his office are to do everything possible to get the troops what they need to succeed and protect themselves on the battlefield.
From practically a standing start, in the past 18 months, the Defense Department has had built and sent 12,000 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to the combat theater, and Gates promised several thousand more. Also, the department is working to build and an all-terrain version of the MRAP designed specifically for Afghanistan. And, Gates said, he intends to expand the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the country.
“I promise you we will do whatever else it takes to give you the tools it takes to complete your mission and come home safely,” Gates said.
This was thye secretary’s first large-scale meeting in Afghanistan. He typically meets with much smaller groups of troops, often without their leaders present, to get an unfiltered view of their needs and concerns. In this session, though, he fielded a handful of questions from the crowd, then posed with every servicemember for a photograph.
The group represented a mix of ranks, services and countries as this command, with about 24,000 troops, has the largest NATO International Security Assistance Force presence of the five regional commands in Afghanistan.
Gates told the servicemembers that talking with the troops has been the highlight of his job.
“Your suggestions have shaped my thinking on everything from day-to-day military operations to enhancing the quality of life for servicemembers and their families,” Gates said.
The crowd sat intently listening, wearing a varied mixture of camouflaged uniforms with rifles and pistols draped across their shoulders. Digital cameras flashed constantly.
“The size and scope of your mission is going to see some changes in the coming months,” Gates said. “The details are still being worked out, and the final decisions will be made by the next president. But a consensus has emerged that more troops are needed to provide security and train Afghan security forces.”
The secretary acknowledged the campaign will not be easy or quick for a country scarred by ethnic fissures, grinding poverty and daunting terrain. But success will not come by military means alone, the secretary said. More infrastructure is needed alongside economic development and governance, he told the troops. Everyone within the NATO alliance will have to step up and do more, he added.
In the end, though, Gates promised success. He said the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States were born here, and that he is convinced that the U.S. military, alongside its allies, will begin the work they started here seven years ago.
“I believe that we can succeed, that we must succeed, and we will succeed,” Gates said.
(Report by Fred W. Baker III, American Forces Press Service.)
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