KABUL - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates spent the day today checking out operations supporting President Barack Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan, including a new joint headquarters overseeing the tactical fight.
Gates also got briefings on stepped-up initiatives to train Afghan security forces, and stopped by the U.S. embassy here to thank U.S. and Afghan employees for the nonmilitary missions they are carrying out that are critical to military success.
Poor weather conditions scotched Gates' original plan to visit troops at several camps and forward operating bases outside Kabul and Kandahar. Instead, he kicked off the day touring the new International Security Assistance Force Joint Command that serves as an intermediate headquarters linking ISAF headquarters with the five regional command headquarters.
Army Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, deputy commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan and Gates' former senior military advisor, stood up the command, which became fully operational Nov. 12.
Gates announced the new three-star command in June, to report directly to Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who commands U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, and focus on the tactical situation there.
Since then, it came together in record time, with Congress quickly confirming Rodriguez's nomination, and the command headquarters jumping into high gear to kick off operations at the North Kabul International Airport military compound.
"It's pretty amazing how quickly you put this all together," Gates said as he toured the Combined Joint Operations Center — the site of a gymnasium just a month and a half ago and now the heart of the new command.
Gates called the command, staffed by 100 troops from 42 nations, a model of post-World War II cooperation that provides a "better integration of operations" between the United States and ISAF.
The new command is part of the strategy to improve command and control relationships and to yield additional capability and agility, Rodriguez told reporters.
Along with Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, which focuses on building the Afghan security forces, it gives McChrystal the tools to "focus on the higher-level national strategy and engagement with other actors, both in Afghanistan and across the region," he said.
"These reorganizations are aimed at improving our effectiveness in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations, and making us better partners with our Afghan friends," Rodriguez said.
The streamlined command and control provided through the ISAF Joint Command "provides a unity of effort" to U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan, explained Army Col. Marty Schweitzer, Rodriguez's executive officer. "We synchronize the tactical fight, day in and day out."
Experts in matters ranging from medical to legal to public affairs join traditional operators and intelligence watch personnel at the new headquarters. Afghan national army and Afghan national police representatives join them on the watch floor to increase situational awareness.
Gates praised the "extraordinary agility" the new headquarters is helping bring U.S. and ISAF forces that he called critical to carrying out President Barack Obama's new way ahead. "I think we have all the pieces coming together to be successful," he said.
Air Force Master Sgt. Eric Belt, a target intelligence analyst who has worked at the new operations center for the past month, said it brings important new capabilities to support his mission. "This allows us to concentrate on the higher-echelon bad guys, or high-value targets," he said.
Gates' visit, he said, underscored the importance of the new command's mission. "It lets us know he appreciates what we are doing here and values what we are contributing," he said.
Rodriguez updated Gates on another initiative focused on long-term success here: accelerating the growth and capacity of Afghan national security forces. Partnerships being forged by embedding more trainers with Afghan soldiers and police are paying off as they build understanding and trust, he said.
Army Lt. Col. Edward Ledford, chief of the command operational engagement cell, told Gates the partnerships are accelerating the growth and professionalism of the Afghan forces. That's critical, he said, in preparing them to take the lead in security operations.
"There is clearly a sense of urgency among all of us," Ledford said. "We can't do this halfway."
Rodriguez noted attrition challenges for the Afghan forces, particularly in the south and east, where fighting is the heaviest. "Where it's hard, you can't recruit," he said. "Where it's hard, you can't retain." He expressed optimism that recent pay raises for Afghan soldiers, including hazardous-duty pay for those operating in the toughest regions, will pay off.
Army Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, who heads up the NATO training mission and Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, cited promising success in recruiting Afghan forces since the new pay initiatives were announced. Recruiting jumped dramatically in early December after the Afghan government announced new pay hikes, he said.
Rodriguez also cited the government's new emphasis on national service.
Later in the day, Gates stopped by the U.S. embassy, where he thanked several hundred employees crammed into the atrium for the contributions they're making in Afghanistan.
"All of our leading generals, from General [David H.] Petraeus to General McChrystal to General Rodriguez, will tell you: if you don't succeed, we can't succeed," Gates said.
"You are enormous force multipliers out there," he told the group, emphasizing the important civilian role in Afghanistan, and in support of broader U.S. national security objectives.
Gates said he will continue pressing for more State Department funding and more flexibility for its operations.
Army Col. Charles Hardy, political-military advisor at the embassy for the past four months, called Gates' comments encouraging in light of the broad expertise the civilian work force is contributing in Afghanistan.
"It's important to me, because there are things we in the military can't do and are not supposed to do," he said.
Army Col. Marty Bischoff, whose work with ISAF's Regional Command East focuses on stability operations, called the so-called "civilian surge" critical to success.
"It's key, because they bring the additional skill sets we need," he said.