Gates, Ahmadinejad swap accusations of ‘a double game’
CAMP BLACKHORSE, Afghanistan — As the Iranian president arrived Wednesday for official meetings in Kabul, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates toured the Afghan National Army advanced training center here.
Gates said earlier this week that Iran was “playing a double game” with Afghanistan — wanting to maintain a good relationship with the government while at the same time undermining the soldiers Gates saw learning to defend their country.
“As I told President [Hamid] Karzai, we think Afghanistan should have good relations with all its neighbors but we also want all of Afghanistan’s neighbors to play an upfront game when dealing with the government of Afghanistan,” Gates said at a press conference after speaking to the Afghan recruits.
Ahmadinejad and Karzai were to discuss relations between the two countries. But at a news conference shortly after Gates left Afghanistan, Ahmadinejad said it was the U.S. that was playing “a double game,” fighting against those it once supported, The Associated Press reported.
“They themselves created terrorists and now they’re saying that they are fighting terrorists,” he said.
Gates’ Afghan counterpart, Abdul Rahim Wardak, didn’t comment directly on whether he agreed with Gates’ assessment of Iran’s intentions, saying only “we do believe a prosperous, stable, peaceful Afghanistan is in the interest of the whole region and all of our neighbors.”
According to both Gates and Gen. Stanley McChyrstal, the top commander in Afghanistan, there is evidence Iran provides low-level support of training and weaponry to the insurgency.
Currently, Iran’s involvement is “not a decisive factor,” McChrystal said this week.
Iran should understand “that our reactions, should they get too aggressive on this, is not one they would want to think about,” Gates told reporters as he flew to Afghanistan on Sunday for his first visit since the new campaign kicked off in Marjah.
Leaving Afghanistan on Wednesday, Gates headed to Saudi Arabia where he met with King Abdullah and Crown Prince bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud. Iran was again a topic of conversation.
Gates stressed the need for a U.N. resolution addressing Iran’s refusal to yield on nuclear issues.
“Certainly we are hopeful that the Saudis will use whatever influence they have — which is considerable in this region and throughout the world — to try and help us in our efforts at the U.N. so we can get meaningful sanctions enacted against Iran,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell said.
Gates also pushed Saudi Arabia to continue its recent outreach to Iraq, and urged them to open an embassy in Baghdad.
“Saudi Arabia’s major concern in Iraq is that as we leave, Iran is going to fill in the void,” the official said. “And our answer then is: ‘Engage with the Iraqi government. Get a seat at the table.’”
At Camp Blackhorse on Wednesday, Gates observed Afghan National Army soldiers conducting various training exercises, including reacting to an ambush while on a foot patrol and reacting to an improvised explosive attack during a convoy.
“I want to thank you for making the courageous decision to heed your nation’s call and join Afghanistan’s army,” Gates told them.
Earlier this week, Gates said that as commander in chief, Karzai needed to be out there encouraging young Afghan men to fight for their country and that he was pleased “he seems to be doing that.”
Karzai recently made his first visit as president to Marjah and spoke about the importance of men signing up for the Afghan security forces.
British Brig. Gen. Simon Levey of the Afghan National Army Training Command told Gates that if recruiting remains on pace — there are 10,000 waiting to enter training — and attrition remains low the Army is on track to increase its size to the 134,000 goal by October.
“What we don’t have yet is the NATO populace filling in the slots we need them to fill in,” he said.
The ANA needs to rebalance from being primarily infantry to include support elements such as logistics and engineering, which are necessary for the Army to operate on its own, he said. On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, senators lambasted the top NATO commander for not getting more countries to either commit more troops or live up to the numbers already promised.
Gates told reporters at Camp Blackhorse that “although attention may be focused on operations in the south today, the training that is going on at this facility for the long term is even more important.”
The coalition recently extended the length of the advanced training center from seven to nine weeks because too many soldiers were failing the final evaluation needed for graduation.
Addressing the Afghan soldiers Gates said: “This training is only the first step as you prepare to take on great responsibilities. The future of Afghanistan is in your hands.”
That was a sentiment Wardak, the minister of defense, seemed eager to make good on.
“Throughout the history, we are always proud that we defended this country against overwhelming odds,” he said. “At the moment ... the boys and girls of the international community shed their blood here — we don’t feel good, we feel almost ashamed.”