Gates prepares for naval buildup in Persian Gulf
MANAMA, Bahrain – Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with senior U.S. and coalition naval commanders Thursday to plan operations in the Persian Gulf, including the arrival next month of another U.S. aircraft carrier and more Patriot missiles meant in part as a warning to Iran.This tiny state in the northern Gulf is headquarters to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and Central Command’s naval staff.Gates also flew to nearby Qatar for a private meeting and lunch with that nation’s leader, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Later he was visiting an air base that hosts a high-tech war room that is the nerve center of all U.S. and coalition air operations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Under ground rules imposed by U.S. officials, reporters traveling with Gates were prohibited from identifying the base or the country in which it is located.In Bahrain, a British Royal Navy officer who is the No. 2 commander for coalition naval forces in the Central Command area of responsibility told reporters that the exact role and missions of the aircraft carrier USS John Stennis, which is due to arrive in the Gulf area next month, have not yet been worked out.British Commodore Keith Winstanley said the Stennis deployment should not be seen entirely as a move aimed at Iran, but he added, “I’m sure there’s a message there for Iran.”He said Iranian naval operations have not changed in any significant way since President Bush announced last week that he was sending a second carrier to the Gulf, and Winstanley said at-sea contacts with the Iranian navy have been “extremely cordial.”Earlier, Gates spoke of possibly sending more troops to Afghanistan, where there are now about 24,000 U.S. troops. But the question is how many more can be contributed at a time when Bush is ramping up U.S. firepower in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.Gates said that he wants to ensure that gains made against extremism in Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded to topple the Taliban regime in October 2001 are not lost as the Taliban re-emerges.”I think it is important that we not let this success here in Afghanistan slip away from us and that we keep the initiative,” he told reporters at Bagram Air Base, the main U.S. military air hub in Afghanistan. “There’s no reason to sit back and let the Taliban regroup.”Gates said that commanders in Afghanistan had recommended a troop increase, and he suggested he was inclined to urge Bush to go ahead with it. He mentioned no numbers during the talk with reporters on Wednesday, but a senior official traveling with Gates said it would not be anything close to the 21,500 extra troops Bush is sending to Iraq. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it likely it would be one or two battalions – no more than a couple of thousand troops.On Wednesday evening, Gates flew to Saudi Arabia, where he was driven to a royal hunting lodge outside of Riyadh, the capital, and met for more than two hours with King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan, who is the kingdom’s defense minister, and other top officials.Gates reassured the Saudis that Bush intends to stick to his strategy of building a democracy in Iraq, where Iranian Shiite influence is a major concern for the Saudis, according to a senior official who attended the talks and briefed reporters later after the U.S. delegation finished its day by flying to Bahrain.Gates also made a pitch for more Saudi help in Iraq, including economic assistance, but he made no specific requests, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. They also discussed Iran; Gates noted the announced decision to send a second aircraft carrier battle group to the Gulf region and to deploy Patriot missiles in the area, but they did not discuss other military plans, the official said.Gates has said several times publicly in recent weeks that he is concerned about backsliding in Afghanistan.As described by U.S. military officers in Afghanistan, the Taliban has been regrouping, at least to the extent that it was able last year to launch vastly more attacks on U.S. and allied forces than in 2005. It has been particularly resurgent in the south and the east, along the Pakistan border.Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said new troop commitments would further strain the U.S. military in the short run. But if done as part of a successful strategy against the Taliban, it might hasten the day when the U.S. military can withdraw its combat forces altogether, he said.Before Gates arrived in Afghanistan for talks Tuesday with U.S. and NATO commanders – as well as Afghan government officials – he said he wanted to hear their views on what should be done to arrest the resurgence of the Taliban and provide the security needed to reconstruct the country.
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