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Interview with Secretary Gates by Traveling Media En Route from Quebec City

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
April 12, 2007
            SEC. GATES: We all thanked the Canadians for their hospitality and expressed our condolences for their losses in these two separate incidents, both to the Minister of Defense and to the Governor General, who I found quite impressive, by the way. I had seen Rick Hillier, General Hillier, just about three weeks ago at the NORTHCOM change of command ceremony, and the relationship is very strong, very good. 
We really covered two principal subjects this morning. One was enhancing the capability of the Afghan army. And it was mainly focused on how we can do a better job among ourselves in coordinating and sharing best practices, what's working, what's not working; how do we make sure that we're all sending consistent messages -- in effect, all singing from the same sheet of music. 
The challenge is we're dealing with a sovereign government. We have 42 partner nations and a dozen international organizations. And trying to keep everybody headed in the same direction we think requires better coordination than we've had up to now. And so we talked about that. 
We talked about a mechanism for better integrating civilian and military activities, a comprehensive approach, and again, one that we can all agree on so we can all kind of move in the same direction.
A fair amount of talk about filling billets for the Combined Security Transition Command. About half of those billets belong to the coalition, and about half -- no, I'm sorry, about a tenth of the billets belong to the coalition or are to be filled by the coalition, and about half of those are actually filled. So we talked about that. 
We talked about completing the fielding of the operational mentoring and liaison teams, especially in the south, and making sure those are staffed up, and again, making sure that we have a comprehensive approach.
And then NATO has asked for -- or the commander and SACEUR have asked for about 3,400 training positions.   And quite frankly, we're having trouble, and probably two-thirds of those are for the police. And so one of the things we talked about was approaching other Europeans about filling some of those positions because it's training jobs and they have some real expertise in that area. 
And then we talked a little bit about strategic communications, how do we help the Afghan government better communicate to its own people what's being achieved, particularly in the realm of development and reconstruction, but also communicate to the outside world what's going on and what all these nations are contributing. But it's not just what NATO and the partner nations are doing, it's what the Afghans themselves are trying to do.
We talked a bit about civil and military regional coherence. It's really more of the coordination and building up all forms of governance at the local and national level -- local, provincial and national levels, and improving coordination among the U.N., the EU and NATO in all of that. So a big focus on better coordination, better sharing of information and so on.
And that was it. It was really a very productive meeting. It was unlike some of the meetings, which were kind of set pieces, where everybody reads a little speech, there's no dialogue or anything. There was a lot of give and take, and I think having a smaller group really was helpful as well.
Q     (Inaudible) – [training positions] is it a new request?
SEC. GATES: It's not -- it's -- I would say within the last six weeks or so, last six weeks or two months.
Q     When you say other European powers -- (off mike) --
SEC. GATES: Yeah, this seems like a place where you don't necessarily need people -- where you have nations that are not willing to put combat troops in, it's an area where those who are not willing to do that or able to do that may be able to pick up the slack in this area where those of us who are contributing most of the combat forces don't have additional forces.
Q     (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: No, we really didn't talk about any specifics. The EU has these training (inaudible) that we're going to use -- hope to use -- (inaudible). So, you know, it's that kind of thing we're talking about.
Q     Will the U.S. fill some of them [the positions]?
SEC. GATES: We would like to try and fill some of them, but quite frankly, we're having trouble identifying -- we can fill some of them, but we don't really have the ability right now to fill them all -- to fill all 3,400. 
Q     (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: I really don't know to tell you the truth. A lot of those trainers are National Guard and people like that, and we just have a hard time identifying those folks -- (off mike).
Q     Did you make any progress towards the other shortfalls the commanders have identified over in Afghanistan, like the aircraft or some of the other equipment? 
SEC. GATES: No, we really didn't talk about that. The focus here was really more on inter-coordination among ourselves, and then how to better help the Afghans build their own capacity, both in governance and in their military and police. 
Q     What are some of those ways that you came up with? 
SEC. GATES: Well, in terms of how to help them better, mainly it's more mentors, these OMLTs, these operational mentoring and liaison teams, filling those. So it's basically that kind of thing, more mentors in the ministries, that sort of thing. 
Q     Can you talk a little bit about the bombing today in Iraq? 
SEC. GATES: I don't know much more about it than you all do. 
Q     Well, I guess just sort of a broad question about what do you think this says about the ongoing effort to increase better security in Baghdad? Would this say that that isn't working? 
SEC. GATES: No, I don't think so. I mean, nobody ever anticipated that you'd have perfect security inside Baghdad. And I think that -- I mean, I think it's premature, actually, to talk about it until we have some idea of what actually happened and who might have been responsible. 
What I find interesting is, we still haven't been able to get confirmation of this, but the early reports make it sound like there was one Sunni and one Shi'a killed, of the legislators. And I think that's illustrative of the fact that there are people trying to disrupt this process regardless of their sectarian beliefs. They're willing to kill anybody to disrupt the process. 
Q     This attack makes it seem like, however, that it's getting worse, not better. I mean, this is the most serious intrusion beyond the security --
SEC. GATES: Again, I think we need to find out what happened. For example, I don't know who was responsible for security at the council of representatives. So that's a question, obviously, that needs to be answered. 
Q     If I could turn to the NATO session for a moment, as you look around the table, do you get a sense that there is the will to sustain the commitments in Afghanistan among the NATO allies, despite the years that might be required? 
SEC. GATES: I think from both the allies and our partner nations -- this was a very interesting mix of people. You have the Australians and ourselves and the British. You have the Canadians, the Estonians, Romanians, the Dutch. And I think all of us anticipate that this is a years-long process, and I didn't hear any flagging on the part of anybody. And it was really more, how do we position ourselves kind of going forward? Just because we realize that creating these Afghan capabilities is going to take time. 
Q     (Off mike) -- follow-up -- (off mike.) The debate over the national caveats from a tactical level. Is there generally agreement about the troop level about what's to be done in Afghanistan and how that's going?
SEC. GATES: Yeah, I think so. I think even those that are -- that prefer to focus their forces and their efforts more on the development and reconstruction side acknowledge that there has to be a secure environment in which they can do that. But I think there's a general understanding that it has to do both.
Q     Back to Iraq a second. A Turkish military official today said that -- well, advocated a military operation in the northern section of Iraq to target Turkish -- the Kurds that are rebels there. What kind of a threat do you think this poses? Is it another threat that the United States needs to worry about, or is it more rhetoric than --
SEC. GATES: I think it's a concern both for the Turks and for us. It's a concern because Turks are being killed by some of these Kurds coming out of northern Iraq, quite a number of Turks have been killed. And so the concern of the Turkish government is understandable.
By the same token, a unilateral action on the part of the Turks to try and deal with the problem is probably not the solution.
Q     Do you think that there's a threat that there will be unilateral action on the part of the Turks, or is this something negotiable with --
SEC. GATES: I wouldn't say -- (off mike).
Q     Your announcement yesterday about extending to 15 months tours got a lot of criticism from members of Congress yesterday and overnight. And there were some comments that this shows that the administration's strategy is not working and that if this can't sustain the 20-brigade level for a year, then this is going to be a longer-term effort. What do you say to those two --
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, it seemed to me from reading the press that there really wasn't any criticism of the decision itself but saw the decision as required by the situation in Iraq and by the buildup of forces. And so I think those -- I think there were a lot of people who used this decision as evidence, in their view, of the strain that the continuing war is imposing on our Army.
I basically wanted -- you know, there were two ways to do this. I could dribble these things out a month or three weeks at a time with the members of the active Army -- I mean, these guys are very smart. These men and women are very smart. The rumor out there -- it was all over out there that they were going to be extended. And what I was hearing was that they were getting annoyed that somebody wouldn't just make a decision, so they could plan. 
And so the one choice was sort of making a decision every three weeks to a month, giving people relatively minimal notice, and not letting anybody be able to plan for the long term among the troops.
And so as the Army began to look at this -- and one of the things that I think worried the Army was the growing number of units who were going to be sent back with less than a year. And so they came up with this proposal that would guarantee them a year at home and then 15 months deployed.
And it seemed to me that kind of putting that out there and so on, it sort of gets all the bad news out at once, because the new news that may come sometime next winter is, "Oh, by the way, you don't have to go," or "You're not going to be extended." But we'll have to wait and see what the good news is on the ground.
Q     Is that possible?
SEC. GATES: I think it's a possibility. I mean, I've said all along -- it's sort of my mantra -- these decisions, I think, need to be driven by the conditions on the ground.
But I think what creates -- I mean, it shows that we can sustain this thing if we have to. But it also means that people -- our men and women in uniform and their families can plan for the worst case, and there may be some upside for them.
Q     Do you see any evidence of -- (off mike)?
SEC. GATES: Did you mean in terms of how long the surge will last? Well, you know, I just keep coming back to -- it's sort of like we keep pulling this tree up by the roots to see if it's growing. You know, and every day I get asked, "Well how's it going? How's it going?" And, you know, I think General Petraeus has said the end of the summer. And I think they'll -- my guess is that -- I mean, we don't even have the third of the five brigades in yet. So there are some signs of -- I mean, it's all the same stuff you all have heard. There are some areas where there are some positive signs; there are some other areas that are of concern. 
Q     In your opening comments, you talked about some of the challenges of coordinating the work of 42 partners, organizations (inaudible) the civil military side. Anything specific that you can relate to us that shows that lack of coordination or --
SEC. GATES: It's more -- I think it's more of an opportunity. Everybody's in there doing their own thing, and because we're not sharing enough information, we really don't know how well we're doing or whether there is a better way to do things. 
So I think at this point the lack of coordination -- and I'm speaking now principally on the civil side and the economic development, reconstruction side, it seems pretty self-evident to all of us as we get a more robust capability in there to do this, that we can probably do a better job if we're sharing more information. 
I don't have any evidence of things that haven't worked because people haven't been talking to one another.
Q     The German defense minister made some comments earlier today backing the U.S. missile defense plan for Europe. Is this a signal to you that there's been some movement within the German government as a whole on this issue?
SEC. GATES: I hadn't heard -- I hadn't heard that. So, if that's true, that's good news.
STAFF: Let's have a wrap-up question.
Q     Are you still enjoying your new job? (Laughter.) That's always a good wrap-up question.
SEC. GATES: Off the record? (Laughter.)