By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
May 24, 2007 – Though strengthening the central governments is critical to success in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today, it's also important to build relationships with local leaders who play key roles in their communities. Gtes told Pentagon reporters he's been concerned that the U.S. and coalition efforts in both countries may be focusing too much simply on bolstering the central governments.
He said he has wondered since taking office in December if the focus has stopped short of recognizing the "cultural and historical, provincial, tribal and other entities that have played an important role in the history of both countries."
"I think the reality is that we need to continue our efforts to strengthen the central governments and the ministries in both countries," he said. "But I think reaching out and working with these other groups is also important."
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Gates in pointing to Iraq's Anbar province an example of what this effort can accomplish.
"It was local leaders in al Anbar who made the decision that they were tired of al Qaeda (and) that they wanted to partner with coalition forces in getting rid of al Qaeda," Pace said. Working together rather than at cross-purposes, these groups have "been able to change the atmosphere in al Anbar significantly," he said.
Pace said the Anbar experience offers a lesson for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The military leadership should be paying attention to the political leadership's decisions and be ready to reinforce and help them as best they can," he said.
Gates said the benefit of this cooperation applies equally in Afghanistan, where "the importance of the village elders and others and the provincial governors is clearly important in progress."
As people tire of violence in their streets, they are more likely to collaborate with forces working to deter them, he said. "When these guys ... get impatient with the Taliban and others trying to muscle their way around their villages and begin to work more closely with (the NATO International Security Assistance Force) and with the Afghan National Army, then I think you begin to see real progress," he said.
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