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American Legion National Convention

Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It’s my pleasure to be with the American Legion today.  Of course, I would have to tell you it’s a pleasure to be away from Washington, DC – a town all too clearly built on a swamp and in so many ways still a swamp. 

I’m especially honored to be here speaking to you.  The Legion has done so much for our nation and our military.  As a proud Eagle Scout, and former long-term President of the National Eagle Scout Association, I’m particularly grateful for your long-standing support of the Boy Scouts of America.  Thanks in part to the support of the Legion, the Boy Scouts just recently celebrated their 100th anniversary.  I spoke at the National Jamboree a few weeks ago and was pleased to see that the enthusiasm for Scouting is still as strong as it was when I was earning my badges half a century ago.  Most awesome to me was when I asked the huge audience at the Jamboree to stand up if they had a father, mother, brother, sister, uncle or aunt serving in the military.  I believe about half of the 45,000 scouts in attendance rose to their feet.

The Legion’s most notable contributions, of course, have always been to our men and women returning from the battlefield, most recently from the post-9/11 conflicts.  This commitment has been expressed through the Heroes to Hometowns program, the only nationwide all-volunteer reintegration assistance service, which eases severely wounded soldiers back into civilian life.

One case that stands out is Sergeant John A. Borders, severely wounded in Iraq.  When he came home, Sergeant Borders, his wife, and their two daughters moved to a new home in Spring Hill, Florida.  The house had been re-fitted to accommodate John's needs, but it still needed a lot of work.  That's when the Legion rallied.  Post 99, Sons of the American Legion, Squad 99 and Unit 152, Tampa, all gathered to do the work, and hundreds of hours of sweat equity later, the property is ready for John and his family. 

The contributions of the legion are particularly necessary and welcome now, when we are asking so much of our troops – each of whom has volunteered to serve in wartime, each of whom is a fitting successor to the legacy you uphold every day.  Captain Dan Luckett of the 101st Airborne Division lost his left leg and part of his right foot in Iraq in 2008.  He was so set on re-joining his unit in combat that he passed the army pre-deployment physical fitness tests again within the year, including a 12 mile-march carrying a 35-pound pack.  Now, Dan can be found on patrol outside of Kandahar.  He is known as the “One-Legged Warlord of Ashaque,” and sends a powerful message to our friends and enemies alike about American guts and determination.

This generation of heroes has been tested in a daunting array of ways – multiple deployments and separations from family, spartan living conditions, the loss of friends and comrades, wounds seen and unseen.  Our military institutions as a whole face complex and unprecedented challenges as well, and I’d like to discuss some of them today.  They include:

  • The major transitions underway in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • Preparing our military for threats looming on the horizon; and
  • In doing so, the importance of making every defense dollar count.

Tomorrow, Operation Iraqi Freedom will officially become Operation New Dawn, a change that recognizes that Iraqis have assumed full responsibility for their own security.  This is the moment both our nations have long worked and hoped for, a moment made possible by the dramatic security gains of the last three and a half years.  Consider that:

  • Despite recent headline grabbing attacks against soft targets in Iraq – that would mean innocent Iraqi civilians – overall levels of violence this year remain at their lowest point since the beginning of the war in 2003;
  • General Odierno reports that his forces haven’t needed to conduct an air strike in more than six months; and
  • In an important victory against transnational terror, Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been largely cut off from its masters abroad. 

I am not saying that all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq.  The most recent elections have yet to result in a coalition government.  Sectarian tensions remain a fact of life.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq is beaten, but not gone.  This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulations, even as we reflect with pride on what our troops and their Iraqi partners have accomplished.  We still have a job to do and responsibilities there.  Even with the end of the formal combat mission, the U.S. military will continue to support the Iraqi army and police, help to develop Iraq’s navy and air force, and assist with counterterrorism operations.

The President will talk about America’s future role in Iraq during his address to the nation tonight.  As that mission moves forward, we must never forget that the opportunities in front of all Iraqis – and especially the opportunity for political freedom – have been purchased at a terrible cost:  in the losses and trauma endured by the Iraqi people, and in the blood, sweat, and tears of American men and women in uniform.  Today, at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 4,427 American service members have died in Iraq, 3,502 of them killed in action; 34,268 have been wounded or injured.  The courage of these men and women, their determination, their sacrifice – and that of their families – along with the service and sacrifice of so many others in uniform, have made this day, this transition, possible.  We must never forget.

As the U.S. military campaign in Iraq winds down, an invigorated and reinforced Afghanistan effort is moving ahead on all fronts.  Much has been said and reported about Afghanistan.  I’d like to emphasize a few main points: 

First, while the United States has been in this fight for a long time, we should think of the Afghan campaign to this point as two different wars.  The first, from 2001 to early 2002, was won outright when the Taliban were ousted from power, elections were held, schools and clinics were opened, and women were liberated from medieval bondage.  However, with the invasion of Iraq, our attention – and our resources – were diverted.  Afghanistan became a 2nd tier priority for troops, equipment, and security and development assistance.  Starting in 2003, the Taliban re-grouped, refilled their ranks, re-constituted themselves in safe-havens, and re-entered Afghanistan.  Violence began to increase significantly in 2005 and has grown worse ever since.  

But today, for the first time in nine years, we now have the resources – the troops and equipment, military and civilian – needed for this fight.   The total international military commitment, when fully deployed, will reach approximately 150,000 – more than three times the number when I became defense secretary going on four years ago – including some 45,000 troops from our NATO allies and other partners.  This dramatic increase in military capability is amplified by a tripling of deployed civilians and a substantial influx of trainers. 

Going forward, Afghans must accept responsibility for the future of their country.   We’re making slow but steady headway on that front, with about 85 percent of the Afghan National Army now partnered with ISAF forces in the field – training together, planning together, and fighting together.  General Petraeus has worked with President Karzai to develop a plan for locally recruited forces that will be accountable to the central government, but will also give local communities the means to defend themselves.  We are committed to enforcing a hard line against the corruption that exploits the Afghan people and saps their support for their elected government – and that includes making sure American tax dollars and other assistance are not being misused.  All these efforts will help build the trust and the self-reliance the Afghans will need to govern and protect themselves for the long term.

Encouraging that self-reliance is why beginning a responsible transition to Afghan control next summer is so important.  That being said, as the President has frequently noted, we are not turning off the lights next July.  As in Iraq, our drawdown will be gradual and conditions-based, accompanied by a build-up of military assistance and civilian development efforts.  If the Taliban really believe that America is heading for the exits next summer in large numbers, they will be deeply disappointed and surprised to find us very much in the fight.  And the realization that we will still be there after July 2011 aggressively going after them will, I believe, impact their morale and willingness to continue resisting their government and the international coalition.

Finally, I know there is a good deal of concern and impatience about the pace of progress since the new strategy was announced last December.  It is important to remember, however, that we are only just now reaching the full complement of surge forces ordered by the President.  The Taliban are a cruel and ruthless adversary, and are not going quietly.  Their leadership has ordered a brutal campaign of intimidation against Afghan civilians, singling out Afghan women for barbaric attacks.  But the enemy is paying a price for these crimes, as more than 350 Taliban commanders have been killed or captured in just the past three months.  These efforts will only accelerate as our military offensive rolls back the enemy from their strongholds and secures key population centers.

 It will be a tough, hard campaign, with setbacks and heartbreak.   The fact that we knew that our losses would increase as the fight was brought to the enemy makes them no easier to bear.  The intensifying combat and rising casualties is in many ways reminiscent of the early months of the Iraq surge, when our troops were taking the highest losses of the war.  Much of the coverage and commentary is similar as well.  Three and a half years ago very few believed the surge could take us to where we are today in Iraq – and there were plenty of reasons for doubts.  Back then, this country's civilian and military leadership chose the path we believed had the best chance of achieving our national security objectives – as we are doing in Afghanistan today.  Success there is not inevitable.  But with the right strategy and the willingness to see it through, it is possible.  And it is certainly worth the fight.

I would remind everyone that this country’s leaders, myself included, made the mistake twenty years ago of abandoning Afghanistan to chaos after the Soviets were driven out.  Of believing its power-vacuum did not and should not concern us, and that we could eliminate threats from a distance at little cost to ourselves.  As events have shown in New York, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, London, Madrid, Amman, Lahore, Bali, Jakarta, and elsewhere around the world – we were wrong.

General Petraeus believes, I believe, and the President believes, that we now have the right strategy in Afghanistan, a strategy that represents our best chance of achieving goals essential to the safety of the United States – delivering a strategic defeat to Al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates by rolling back the Taliban from their strongholds, building Afghan capacity to secure their own territory, and in so doing, denying a safe haven to terrorists that would attack our country once again.  That is our objective and that is our strategy – and the only possible justification for the risks and sacrifices we are asking of our troops.

As I’m sure everyone in this audience is keenly aware, even if everything should go ideally in Iraq and Afghanistan, a year from now, five years from now, the United States will still find itself in a dangerous world.  Our military must remain strong and agile enough to face a diverse range of threats.  These range from non-state actors attempting to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction and sophisticated missiles, to the more traditional threats of other states both building up their conventional forces and developing new capabilities that target our traditional strengths.  Building a flexible portfolio of capabilities and systems that can be used across the widest possible range of conflict will be the key challenge for the entire Department of Defense as we move into a new era.  

As a country, historically, we have a troubling, predictable pattern of coming to the end of a conflict, concluding that the nature of man and the world has changed for the better, and turning inward, unilaterally disarming and dismantling institutions important to our national security.  And when we are invariably – and inevitably – proved wrong, when war comes again, we have had to rearm and rebuild, at huge cost in blood and treasure, most recently after September 11th.  It is critically important moving forward that we not repeat that mistake again.

Yet in the coming years the pressure will undoubtedly be great to ignore the lessons of our history, and to reduce spending on defense.  The post-9/11 spigot of defense spending may be turned off, but going forward we must have modest and sustainable growth in the defense budget in order to maintain and reset our fighting forces and invest adequately for the future.  To make the case for this growth at a time of economic and fiscal duress requires the Defense Department to make every dollar count – to fundamentally change the way we do business.  It means shifting resources from bureaucracies and headquarters and overhead to the combat capabilities needed today and in the future.

As part of this effort, I asked the entire Pentagon earlier this year to take a hard, unsparing look at how the department is staffed, organized and operated. While many of these decisions were difficult, they are necessary to ensure that our fighting forces – on air, land, and sea – have the resources to achieve a wider range of missions and prepare for future challenges and needs. 

As those who have paid the price in previous conflicts for misplaced priorities when it comes to national defense, I ask your support for a leaner, more efficient Pentagon and continued sustainable, robust investments in our troops and future capabilities.  Our troops have done more than their part, now it is time for us in Washington to do ours.  I will do everything in my power to ensure that we live up to our solemn obligations – for the safety of our country, for the well-being of our troops. 

These talented and resilient men and women in uniform are the ones who give me confidence in the future, as there is no group of people at anytime or anyplace more capable of confronting the challenges our country faces.  I feel a deep sense of personal responsibility to each and every one of them, to ensure they have all they need to accomplish their mission and come home safely.  The debt owed by all Americans to those now serving, and those who have served, can never be fully repaid.  You have my gratitude and respect for all that you do for our troops, and for all you do for the country they have stepped forward to defend. 

Thank you.

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