GEN. CASEY: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to a lot of you. A great opportunity here for me to welcome our new secretary of Defense to Iraq. I think when we first met here in late August, early September, I don't think either one of us thought that we'd be back here doing this today.
So, Mr. Secretary, welcome. It's a great honor to talk to you today, and I look forward to our further discussions.
SEC. GATES: Well, I had very good meetings today with General Casey and General Abizaid as well as with General Odierno and General Fil. I think it was very important for me to hear firsthand candid, honest assessments from our commanders on how to proceed in Iraq, particularly since they'll be the ones to implement whatever decisions are made. I value both their advice and their service to our country.
The purpose of this trip is to get a sense from the situation on the ground -- of the situation on the ground and listen to a wide spectrum of views from the top commanders down through the ranks, and I've had the opportunity to start doing that today. The other purpose of the trip, though, is also to talk with the leaders of the Iraqi government, above all, Prime Minister Maliki and talk to them about how best we can support them going forward and how best we can -- particularly in improving the security situation, but also in terms of strengthening and supporting the Iraqi government.
I'm also here to thank directly on behalf of the president and, I believe, the American people, our service men and women here in Iraq, who have sacrificed so much to serve our country. I had the opportunity to meet a number of the troops, including one group that was just heading out on a mission. They're incredibly dedicated, brave and committed to their -- to the success of their mission, and I hope that everybody at home here at the holiday season will remember that all these men and women are away from their families. And they have their buddies here, but it's not like being home. So I hope everybody will remember them in their prayers and be thinking of their service.
The trip is part of the overall assessment that the president has asked me to do, as I indicated at the confirmation hearing. I've been participating in NSC meetings. I've been participating in a lot of briefings at the Department of Defense after the Senate confirmed me.
But this trip is really an important piece of that in terms of getting a feel for what we in the agency used to call "ground truth."
I think there's nothing more important than succeeding here in Iraq. I'm confident we can do so, and I've talked before about the consequences of failure to do so.
So I'm glad to be here. It's just at the start of the trip. I'm looking forward to the meetings that I'm going to have with our friends the Iraqis, and look forward to getting as much good information over the next day or two as I've already gotten today.
Let me ask General Pace if he'd like to say a word or two.
GEN. PACE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. It's a great pleasure for me to join Secretary Gates in thanking General Abizaid and General Casey for their sustained leadership and dedication to the mission that our country has given to them, have a chance to also thank our troops, who are delivering for our country in every way that we've asked them to and beyond, and especially to their families, who are missing their loved ones today.
It's good to be able to be here on the ground, to listen to the leaders of our own forces and of the Iraqi government, and that's what we'll be doing today in the time we're here.
With that, we'll turn to your questions.
Q Mr. Secretary, we're hoping to get an idea about what kind of advice the commanders are giving you about the way forward here on the ground, and whether or not that advice has differed now that you are Defense secretary from what they told you when they were working with the Iraq Study Group.
SEC. GATES: Well, I would say that the questions I'm asking are different than the ones that I was asking when I was a member of the Iraq Study Group. I didn't dream at that time I would actually have some responsibility for what goes forward.
I would say we've had -- you know, we've discussed obvious things. We've discussed the possibility of a surge and the potential for what it might accomplish. I think it's very important in this case to hear above all from the Iraqis and from the prime minister on how best we can help. I think that that's a very important consideration. As we look at the different options that are being discussed in Washington, we need to remember that there is an Iraqi government and that the Iraqi government needs to be a partner in this, or we need to be a partner with the Iraqi government, with them out in front. And so it's one thing for us to have a discussion about some of these options, but their view is really important.
And so we've discussed the obvious things that have been in the press in Washington. I've heard the commanders' views. They've been very candid with me. It's been a very useful conversation. But I'm especially looking forward to my meetings with the Iraqi leadership.
Q I wonder if we might ask Generals Casey and Abizaid -- both of you have said over the past year that you don't think more U.S. troops are the answer to what's going on in Iraq. And I'm wondering, now with all this discussion about the possibility of surging additional forces in for some period of time, if you could tell us if your views have changed.
And also, General Abizaid, if you could just put in context for us -- around Washington the news is swirling about your plans to retire in the spring, and some people have characterized it as you resigning, some people have said it's precipitous. So maybe if you could just put in context for us your future plans and whether you -- (inaudible word).
GEN. CASEY: I wouldn't characterize what I've said about not necessarily thinking more American troops are the answer. What I've consistently said is I will ask for what I need to get the job done, and I have consistently done that. And I think probably three or four times I've asked for additional troops, but they've been for a purpose. They've been for an election or to take advantage of an opportunity that was presented as a result of the operations in Fallujah.
So I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea, but what I want to see happen is if we do bring more American troops here, they help us progress toward our strategic objectives. And that's what I'll be interested in.
GEN. ABIZAID: As far as the surge forces are concerned, I think it's safe to say that absolutely all options are on the table. We're looking at every possible thing that might influence the situation to make Baghdad, in particular, more secure.
As far as retirement rumors, et cetera, are concerned, I don't think it's much news to many of you sitting around that spring of 2007 is the target date for when I would retire. It's certainly not considered precipitous by the Abizaid family. After 50 months out here, I think it's okay to think about retiring. But again, I serve at the pleasure of the president and the secretary.
Q Well, some people wonder why perhaps you haven't been given another assignment, or did you want to -- did you feel like this was the time to end your Army career? Is it totally your decision?
GEN. ABIZAID: No decision that anybody makes in a position like this is ever totally their decision, but I think the time is right, and it has nothing to do with dissatisfaction.
Q Mr. Secretary, can I ask you, on the surge question, are you personally concerned that adding more American troops, even for a short period, will delay the Iraqis taking responsibility for their security and ultimately may not lead to permanent increases or permanent improvements in security? Can you give us sort of your -- I realize it's early days, but can you give us your impressions of that question at this point?
SEC. GATES: I think before I draw any conclusions on that, I want to talk to the prime minister and others in the Iraqi government.
It's clearly a consideration. I think that the commanders out here have expressed a concern about that. But as General Casey indicated, they also have called for more troops when they felt that there was a specific mission and a specific purpose. So I'm reserving judgment until I've had an opportunity to talk to the Iraqis.
Q Mr. Secretary, the president has also asked you to consider a look at an overall increase in the size of the Army and the Marine Corps. Can you give us a little bit of your thoughts on that, how big of an increase do you think is warranted at this point, and where you think you're going with that?
SEC. GATES: Well, the answer is, we're just beginning that process. I have had a concern from outside the government that with all of the missions that the Army and the Marine Corps have had in recent years -- not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but the challenges that we potentially face in Iran and North Korea and elsewhere, not to mention other things, like rescue missions related to Hurricane Katrina -- that frankly the question arose whether the Army is in fact large enough to carry out all the missions it's been assigned. We're looking at that.
One of the things that I think people have not fully appreciated has been the Army's success and their plans in creating more combat capability out of the existing military force. There is this temporary authorization that the Congress has provided of 30,000 additional troops over the 482,000, and that's really a bridge toward this modularization of the Army and creating more combat brigades. And there's been significant progress in that.
And so the question is, it -- in a way, it goes back to the same basic question of the surge itself. And that -- they're not related, but the question is, what's the mission? What's the purpose? Can we do this? How big should an increase be? And then there's always the question of how big an increase can we afford, given the modernization programs that are under way.
So all of those are questions that have to be looked at in this context. And the reason I say it's not related to the surge is that a decision to increase the size of the Army today really won't show up in troops, if you will, trained troops, for some period of time.
Q Mr. Secretary, you mentioned you were here to thank the troops. But what would you like the troops, and particularly here in Iraq, to know about your priorities -- and the families -- as you come into this new position?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that one of the things that has become clear to me is that -- and because, if I may refer back to my old job -- when I was president of Texas A&M, I got a lot of e-mails from troops here in Iraq who were Aggies. And I would say there were three themes to the e-mails that I received from the troops. The first was, they obviously would like to come home. But second, they don't want to come home until their mission is accomplished. They feel very strongly about the mission. And the third was, they also don't want the sacrifice of their buddies to have been in vain.
And so I think my sense is that the troops -- the young troops, especially -- are really committed to this mission. And so I think that the priority is accomplishing the mission; is accomplishing the objective of an Iraq that is sustainable, that can defend itself, that can govern itself, so that at the proper time we can withdraw a lot of these troops and let them go home. And I think that's their priority as well.
Q But can you bring down the sectarian violence in this country without going after Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, and is that something that you're going to push with the prime minister when you meet with him tomorrow?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think where I would leave it is simply to say that both in my conversations with our military leadership here and with the Iraqi government is how best can the United States help the Iraqi government bring down the level of violence here in Baghdad and in places like Anbar. And that will be a principal theme of the discussions, I think.
Q Would that include a more proactive stance on the militias?
SEC. GATES: Well, that's what I'm here to find out.
Q Sir, can I just challenge one thing that you said about the increase in the size of the military not being related to a possible surge of forces in Iraq? Because it seems as though -- I mean, one of the reasons that a permanent increase in the size of the military was resisted in the past was the argument that by the time the troops were here, they might not be needed anymore. But now it's three years down the road, and the troops are needed, and it seems that by contemplating an increase in the size of the military, what you're saying is that you don't see much potential for a lessening of the demand on the force in the future, particularly at a time when you may be surging troops into Iraq.
So it does seem that the size of the military is related to --
SEC. GATES: I'm just looking at the history of the last dozen years or so and the multiple missions. When I was last in government, we had no idea that the United States would end up with tens of thousands of troops in the Balkans. It's a very unstable world, and if you look at the multiplicity of missions that the Army and the military, the Marine Corps and others have been given over the past dozen years, that's really the basis on which I think you evaluate whether or not an increase is necessary.
We also, I think, are looking at the increase -- have to look at the increase in the context of can we get back to the original arrangements, where the military serves active duty, the regular Army serves one year deployed and two years at home, and the kind of commitment to the Reserves and the National Guard in terms of one year at home -- one year deployed and five years at home and so on.
These are all the -- these are all the considerations that I think we have to take into account. The only reason I said it was unrelated to the surge is that any increase in the end strength of the military today is not going to impact what we can do in terms of the surge over the next few months.
Q Secretary Gates, you seem to be the --
STAFF: Last question.
Q Secretary Gates, you seem to be the swing vote on the whole question of more troops or less troops. Have you heard anything today that pushed you in one direction or the other of a conclusion?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, let me be very clear about one thing. I am not the swing vote. There is only one vote that matters, and that's the president of the United States. What I'm here to do is talk to all these folks, talk to the Iraqis and see what advice I can give to the president that will help him make the decision.
Q Thank you.
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