Opening Summary to the Senate Armed Services Committee (Washington, D.C.)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C., Thursday, April 10, 2008
Mr. Chairman, members of the committee:
I appreciate the opportunity to be here to discuss the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As always, I thank the members of the committee for your support of the Department of Defense, but, more importantly, for your support of our men and women in uniform. While there have been – and will continue to be – debates over our strategy in these campaigns, I know we are all unified in our admiration for those who have volunteered to serve.
As you have heard from Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus, violence in Iraq has declined dramatically since this time last year. In addition to the drop in U.S. casualties, we have seen a dramatic – and encouraging – decline in the loss of Iraqi civilians: ethno-sectarian deaths are down approximately 90 percent, and overall civilian deaths 70 percent.
At the same time, Iraqi security forces have provided a “surge” of their own to complement U.S. and Coalition efforts. Though the recent operations in Basra revealed some shortcomings of Iraq’s security forces, it is important to remember that a year ago they would not have been capable of launching a mission of that scale. At this time, half of Iraq’s provinces have attained Provincial Iraqi Control. The next province we anticipate moving into that category is Anbar – a remarkable development considering the grim security situation in that province 18 months ago.
The Iraqi forces will shoulder more of the burden as we reduce our forces over time.
On the economic front, the IMF expects real GDP growth in Iraq to exceed 7 percent this year. Oil exports are above pre-war levels and generated almost $40 billion for Iraq in 2007. These numbers reflect improvements that are having a tangible impact on the lives of Iraqis. These economic gains also mean that Iraqis should shoulder ever greater responsibility for reconstruction and equipping their forces.
In recent months, we have seen the government of Iraq make meaningful progress in the legislative arena as you heard from Ambassador Crocker. These legislative measures are not perfect and certainly have their shortfalls. Clearly these laws must be implemented in a spirit of reconciliation, or at least accommodation. Still, we ought not ignore or dismiss what has been achieved.
Just as there is real progress to report, there are also substantial reasons to be cautious. Al Qaeda in Iraq, though on the defensive, remains a lethal force. It is trying to regenerate itself and will continue to launch gruesome terrorist attacks. There will be difficult days for Iraqis and Coalition forces alike in coming months.
All of this – both the good and the bad, both progress and potential regression – was on our minds as we considered our options going forward. In order to advise the President, I again asked for individual assessments and recommendations from the commander in Iraq, Central Command, and the Joint Chiefs. The President received recommendations in separate face to face meetings with General Petraeus, Admiral Fallon, Admiral Mullen, and each of the service chiefs. Though all bring different perspectives – from the institutional military to the operational military – all concur with the course the President has chosen in Iraq.
Presently, two of the five surge brigades have left Iraq. The other three are scheduled to depart by July. At this point it is difficult to know what impact, if any, this reduction will have on the security situation. A brief pause for consolidation and evaluation following a return to pre-surge troop levels will allow us to analyze the process and its effects in a comprehensive way. I do not anticipate this period of review to be an extended one. And I would emphasize that the hope, depending on conditions on the ground, is to reduce our presence further this fall. But we must be realistic. The security situation in Iraq remains fragile and gains can be reversed.
I believe our objectives are achievable. The gains that have been made over the past year – at no small cost in blood and treasure – should not be allowed to unravel through precipitous actions.
Whatever you think of how we got to this place, the consequences of failure – of getting the end game wrong – are enormous. Some have lamented what they believe was an unwillingness to listen to our military professionals at the beginning of this war. I hope that people will now not dismiss as irrelevant the unanimous views of the field commander, CENTCOM Commander, and Joint Chiefs. All of the nation’s most senior military officers endorse this step-by-step path forward. As I told the President, I support these recommendations.
A final observation. I have eight months remaining in this position. We continue to find ourselves divided over the path forward in Iraq. This is not a surprise. The truth is, perhaps excepting World War II, all of our country’s wars have been divisive and controversial here at home. This is the glory of our democracy, and gives the lie to the notion we are a warlike people.
It was my hope 16 months ago that I could help forge a bipartisan path forward in our Iraq policy that would sustain a steadily lower – but still adequate and necessary – level of commitment for the years needed to yield an Iraq that is an ally against extremists and can govern and defend itself. I continue to harbor this hope for a bipartisan path and will continue to work for it. But I do fear that understandable frustration over years of war and dismay over sacrifices already made may result in decisions that are gratifying in the short term but very costly to our country and the American people in the long term.
We were attacked from Afghanistan in 2001 and we are at war in Afghanistan today in no small measure because of mistakes this government made – mistakes I, among others, made – in the end game of the anti-Soviet war there some 20 years ago. If we get the end game wrong in Iraq, I predict the consequences will be far worse.