Gates calls for Afghan coordinator

( AP ) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated Tuesday that the lengthy search for a European official to coordinate the international aid presence in Afghanistan may be completed soon.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Gates said he hopes a "suitable candidate" can be picked shortly, allowing more efficiency in the way international assistance is implemented.

Gates mentioned no names, but a senior defense official said before the hearing that the candidate proposed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in recent weeks is British diplomat Paddy Ashdown, who was Bosnia-Herzegovina's international administrator for more than three years.

The defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities, said Karzai has embraced the concept of having a European in the coordinating role but has not announced his endorsement of any individual.

Gates acknowledged, during questioning by committee members, that opinion polls show resurgent support for the radical Taliban, who were overthrown in the U.S. invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Admittedly, it's gotten worse," Gates said, adding that this appeared to be due to inadequate provision of basic government services and corruption among local Afghan police. He said it does not reflect a lack of U.S. military commitment, noting there are about 25,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Gates, who visited Afghanistan last week, said the security and other gains in Afghanistan are fragile.

"There needs to be more effective coordination of assistance to the government of Afghanistan," Gates told the committee. "A strong civilian representative is needed to coordinate all nations and key international organizations on the ground. We and others have worked with the Karzai government to identify a suitable candidate. I'm hopeful this exhaustive search will be completed soon."

Gates addressed the issue in more detailed in a written statement submitted in advance of his presentation.

"Even with devotion of U.S. resources that I've mentioned, there has not been sufficient follow-on reconstruction, development or security by other allies, and this has put at risk areas that have been cleared of insurgents," his prepared statement said.

Gates is scheduled to travel to Scotland on Thursday for two days of talks with NATO member countries who have combat troops in southern Afghanistan, where the insurgent violence has been especially high this year.

Gates said he has proposed to NATO that it develop a "strategic concept" paper, assessing how the situation in Afghanistan should proceed over the next three to five years. He hoped that the paper could be ready for consideration by NATO government leaders at a summit in Romania next spring.

Appearing with Gates, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said chances for success in Afghanistan rest in large part on the willingness of NATO allies to contribute more, while removing restrictions they have placed on the way their troops can be used there.

Mullen said the Afghan national army is making good progress; the Afghan police are more problematic, he said. "We have a long way to go," Mullen said.

In opening remarks at the hearing, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the committee chairman, said NATO allies must do more to help in Afghanistan. Skelton said U.S. intelligence agencies have cautioned that if current trends hold, the Afghanistan campaign faces the risk of "a looming strategic failure."

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