Media Roundtable with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James E. Cartwright from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.
SEC. GATES: Earlier this week I recommended and the president approved the one-time deployment of approximately 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan for seven months. Starting in the spring, most of this force will fill a standing ISAF request for combat troops in the south, and the remainder will help train Afghan national security forces. The deployment underscores once more America's enduring commitment to the mission in Afghanistan. It reflects the fact that NATO and U.S. commanders believe they need more troops to take advantage of last year's military successes, to keep the pressure on the Taliban, and to accelerate the training of the Afghan national security forces.
This deployment of Marines does not reflect dissatisfaction about the military performance in Afghanistan of allied forces from other nations. I mention this because there have been several recent media reports of discontent in the United States and among other NATO members about operations in Afghanistan. This does not reflect reality or, I believe, the views of our government. As I said before the House Armed Services Committee last month, allied forces from the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark and other nations have stepped up to the plate and are playing a significant and powerful role in Afghanistan. They have rolled back the Taliban from previous strongholds in the south. They are taking the fight to the enemy in some of the most grueling conditions imaginable.
As a result of the valor and sacrifice of these allies, the Taliban has suffered significant losses and no longer holds real estate of any consequence. Indeed, the resort to suicide bombers and other terrorist acts are the actions of those who have suffered consistent and repeated defeat in regular military actions throughout 2007.
In the past, I have noted that NATO as an institution still has shortcomings as it transitions from its Cold War orientation to a more global and expeditionary posture. I've also said public that the U.S. military and U.S. government as a whole have had a difficult time adapting to protracted counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have to acknowledge the reality that the alliance as a whole has not trained for counterinsurgency operations even though individual countries have considerable expertise at and success in this arena.
A coalition at war always faces stresses and strains. Some of the sniping between allied generals during World War II is the stuff of legend. And I can remember disputes even during the first Gulf War. But the transatlantic alliance is in Afghanistan together. Our allies, including the Canadians, the British, the Dutch, the Australians and others, are suffering losses as they demonstrate valor and skill in combat. We must overcome in good faith and mutual respect the issues that provoke our alliance, and keep focused on the mission that unites us -- ensuring a free and secure Afghanistan.
I think we're prepared to take your questions. Lita?
Q Mr. Secretary, given your concern that the NATO alliance as a whole has not trained sufficiently for counterinsurgency, what do you do from here? Is that something that needs to be addressed, or do you just let NATO return to more of a peacekeeping role? And if so, does that not require a greater role in combat by the United States?
SEC. GATES: Well, one of the -- one of the suggestions that I made in Edinburgh, we have a counterinsurgency academy in Kabul that is run by General Cone, and we have encouraged our allies, particularly those who have not had experience in this arena, to take advantage of that.
So I think there are some vehicles available. We have a training facility in Hohenfels for those are going out for the mentoring and liaison teams that gives them training, those going to Afghanistan. So there are some vehicles through which the training can take place, and I've been encouraging some of our allies to take advantage of some of the lessons that we've learned in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq over the last several years.
Q Are they not taking advantage of that to the extent that you think they should? And as a follow-up, did you make any calls or reach out to any of the allies yesterday in the wake of the public disclosure of some of the comments?
SEC. GATES: I think they have taken advantage of it. I invited our colleagues, in Scotland and elsewhere, to take greater advantage of it.
I had talked to several of the allies, including the NATO secretary-general, earlier in the week, to give them a heads-up about the impending deployment or the impending announcement about the Marines. I reached out a second time to the Canadian Defense minister yesterday.
Q But Mr. Secretary, the 3,200 Marines that will be going is about about half of what General McNeill says he needs in additional forces there. Are you still concerned that NATO hasn't stepped up to the plate in providing more forces and additional equipment? And what concerns do you have that at the end of this year, some of those NATO commitments by some of those individual countries run out? Are you concerned that some of those NATO forces may withdraw at the end of their commitment?
SEC. GATES: Actually, several of the allies are in the process of making decisions and announcing additions to their forces in Afghanistan. And we obviously welcome that.
One of the things that I have spoken about in my telephone calls and that I will follow up in with letters to some of my counterparts is for them to be thinking seriously about who can backfill against the Marines when the Marines leave early next winter, so that that capability won't be lost.
I think that the two categories of requirement that General McNeill was seeking were, first, for trainers for the Afghan national security forces and particularly for the police.
And he was looking for about 3,500 trainers for them, and he was looking for, I think, three maneuver battalions for the south. I think that the deployment of the Marines will largely respond to his requirement for the maneuver -- the additional maneuver battalions in the south. The training component -- and I'll invite General Cartwright to add -- but the training component of OEF has found some work-around, so they have found some hundreds of trainers. We will add the thousand Marines to those trainers. So while the -- I think that the principal shortfall -- continuing shortfall will be in having as many trainers as we would like for the security forces, but we have responded. And I think between the work-around and the Marines we will have responded to at least half of the requirement for trainers.
GEN. JAMES CARTWRIGHT (vice chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): And the other piece to that on the maneuver force, the Marine side, is the timing, the lessons that we've learned. There is a fighting season in Afghanistan, and so we're getting those Marines there at the beginning of that fighting season. We learned last year that if you're there and ready to go in the spring, it makes a big difference, and so having the Marines there at that point in time -- and it's a MEU, rather than just a straight battalion, so they've got their supporting arms and their maneuver, which is what gives them the advantage to be more than just a single battalion, a straight-leg. So that's critical, is the timing of when they're put in there.
The second piece on the training is we'll tailor this battalion. The Marine Corps is going to tailor this battalion to be aligned with training needs. A normal battalion is generally very young and light on the training side. So this will be a more mature group of people. It'll equate in numbers, but the seniority and the age to have the skills that were required by the theater will be in there.
Q (Off mike) -- and any concerns about any of the NATO allies ending their commitments at the end of their formal commitment, which --
SEC. GATES: No, in fact the Dutch have just extended. Their parliament has just voted to extend their commitment by two years, so I think that the people are accepting their responsibilities, particularly those that are already there.
Q Secretary Gates, given that your comments, as characterized by the LA Times, have rankled some NATO allies, have you had to engage in damage control? And what exactly did you mean when you said to the Times that you were concerned that some military trainers weren't properly trained that were being deployed to Afghanistan? That sounds like a specific criticism of troops going to Afghanistan, as opposed to the general observation about the transformation of the alliance.
SEC. GATES: Well, I have one thing that I wanted to make clear to people yesterday, was to call attention to what I actually had said and the actual quotes in the article, which were addressed to the alliance as an alliance and not addressed to any particular country. And as I said in the statement at the beginning, you know, the United States has had to basically relearn counterinsurgency, and as a government, including the civil side, we still have some deficiencies on that in that respect. And so we have gone out to people to try and clarify that I wasn't talking about any particular allies, but that the alliance as a whole, having spent 40 years training and exercising to deal with the Soviet Union coming through the Fulda Gap, has not refocused in terms of its overall program, in terms of counterinsurgency, despite the expertise of individual countries. So that's basically been the thrust.
Q Did you personally have to make some calls to smooth some ruffled feathers?
SEC. GATES: No. As I said, I had talked to several of these people the day before. As I mentioned earlier, I did reach out to the Canadian defense minister yesterday.
They had suffered a loss near Kandahar, I think, the day before, and I wanted to make sure that they understood respect for their contribution and how much of an impact they are making.
Q Aside from the idea that NATOs trying to make nice in public, isn't there some truth to what you said, that some of the troops sent to Afghanistan aren't properly trained? I mean --
SEC. GATES: Well, to your point, we are significantly, we're trying to significantly increase the number of these operational mentoring and liaison teams. And my concern, what I've heard out of the theater, and it's not just from Americans, is that some of these groups are not fully trained, and we have this facility in Hohenfels. And so I just want to make sure that as we ramp up the number of these OMLTs, these mentoring teams, that they are fully trained when they go into the theater. And that's true of every country, including the United States.
Q I was just wondering if this fits the classic Washington definition of a gaffe, which is accidentally telling the truth?
SEC. GATES: No, I don't think so.
Q Speaking of training, in light of what has happened in Waziristan, with the Taliban overtaking a key fort there and 27 Pakistani soldiers being killed, has Pakistan reached out to you and asked for more training, more help? Is there any plan to send more U.S. aid or troops to Pakistan, to help them in dealing with their counterinsurgency problems? Because isn't the key to Afghanistan through Pakistan?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: My sense here is one, as you allude to anyway, the character of the fight in Pakistan has changed to some extent, and it is more focused inward, and we're watching that very carefully. We're assessing what value we could have, or any other ally could have, in contributing to their security, but they're a sovereign nation. They have to make those decisions. And we will stand by and be available, particularly for those things that we might do in the way of training or in helping them in shortfalls that they have as they too, just like this last conversation, start to transition their force more to a force dealing with a counterinsurgency internal.
Q Have they reached out in the last few days and asked for more help?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Admiral Fallon's in the area. The chairman's been out there. We've had several -- we have not gotten those reports back yet. We're waiting to kind of digest it. As you know, this is a turbulent time, with the elections, with the assassination.
And so we're trying to make sure we understand ground truth before we take any action so that it not be misperceived but contribute to their stability.
Q What does it say about the hopes for the United States for that region and what should happen in that region and efforts to possibly play a bigger role? Does this suggest that there's a chance the U.S. will play a bigger role in those tribal areas?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: Well, I certainly would tell you this is one of those opportunities where the glass may be half-full or it may be half-empty. There may be an opportunity here to better focus how we can help in that area, both for our own interests and for their interests.
Q But this is a dramatic turn. The Taliban's -- I mean, have gone after forts and routed the Pakistan army, and the Pakistan army fled another fort.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: As I said, they focused internally and they have turned that threat to themselves. As they start to come out of these areas like Swat and like the northern areas, Waziristan, it's a different threat. Is it a threat that the Paks are ready to handle? Do they need help? Do they need training help? Do they need other types of help? That's what we're trying to assess right now.
Q (Off mike) -- asking, what do you think at this point?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the -- first of all, I think you have to look at the realities of the situation. This is a relatively late-breaking event. For al Qaeda and some of the other insurgent groups along that border to turn against the Pakistani government and take on the Pakistani government, to be involved in the assassination of a prominent political leader, is a development that has just taken place in the last few months. And so -- and this has always been an area that has not been fully under the control of the Pakistani government or where there has been a significant military presence.
And so I think that the Pakistani government, frankly, is dealing with the emergence of a threat inside Pakistan that it has not confronted until very recently. And it's not a surprise to me that they're having some challenges in trying to deal with that.
Q Do you think they are responsible for Bhutto's death?
SEC. GATES: I don't know. I only know what the Pakistanis have said.
Q Mr. Secretary, one of the comments in the LA Times piece, you talked about the difference between Rodriguez and the counterinsurgency efforts in the East versus your concerns with NATO in the South. Were you saying that U.S. troops in Afghanistan are better at counterinsurgency than NATO allies?
SEC. GATES: No, I wasn't drawing any comparisons at all. I was simply saying that I think we have had a successful counterinsurgency effort in the East.
I visited Khost when I was there last December. I met with tribal elders. I met with the provincial governor. I met with our local commanders. And what I saw was a classic textbook case of a successful counterinsurgency of all the different elements coming together, including locals and the national government, the Afghan security forces and our own forces.
So I wasn't drawing any invidious comparisons at all. I was simply pointing out that we do have a successful counterinsurgency apparently under way in RC East.
Q Mr. Secretary --
Q It appears from this quote that you are actually drawing a contrast between the progress in East and what NATO is doing. Are you saying that wasn't the case?
SEC. GATES: I'm saying I was not trying to draw a contrast.
Q Some have suggested that in the South, in fact, the Taliban is resurgent, and others in that area have obviously put that forward. Is that your view?
And secondly, do you include Canadian soldiers in your common concern about the lack of training in terms of counterinsurgency? And if so, what don't they understand? What don't they get?
SEC. GATES: First of all, I do not include the Canadians in that respect.
I think that there has been an increase in the level of violence, but I think if you look at the elimination of the Taliban presence in Musa Qal'eh and you look at the other military activities during the course of the year, that even in RC South, while there has been a lot of activity, the military campaign has been very successful, it seems to me. The purported Taliban offensive last spring never happened. It ended up being an ISAF, it ended up being a NATO offensive, and I think very effective.
As I say, I think we're beginning to see some of these suicide bombers and IEDs and so on, where in the last year or two we were seeing more of the Taliban being willing to confront us in a regular, conventional military way. They have suffered so many defeats and lost so many leaders in those kinds of attacks that I think they're resorting to these other activities. And so I think 2007, as I said in my statement, militarily was a very successful year in RC South. We're sending the Marines to make sure that we take advantage of the gains that we've made.
We still have some challenges in the South. Clearly, beginning to deal with the narcotics problem, which is disproportionately a problem in the South, is an issue that the whole alliance, and the Afghan government, above all, are going to have to take on, because it feeds corruption and it creates a variety of problems.
So there are clearly challenges in the South. It's the toughest part of the country, probably, right now in terms of some of the challenges we all face. That's why we're -- one of the reasons why we're sending the Marines.
Do you want to add anything to that, General?
Q So you’re confident in the level of training that the Canadians have?
SEC. GATES: I have no problems with the Canadians.
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: I think that's right. And the character of the fight is changing and it is dynamic. And part of the training issue is can you respond quickly enough so that you're not on the receiving end of that activity, you're leading it, so to speak. And that's part of the training effort. And we've had to learn that. You cannot as a unit go home, take your pack off, and then go back to the fight and expect the character of the fight to look anything like it did when you left. I mean, this is changing too quickly.
SEC. GATES: I met with General Odierno's successor day before yesterday, General Austin, and his response -- switching to Iraq for a second -- was that if you haven't been there in 30 days, you're out of date.
Q Speaking of Iraq, Mr. Secretary, I know it's a bit early, but what's your current assessment as to the prospects -- and yours too, General -- the prospects for drawing down the surge, as planned, and continuing to draw down beyond that?
And you've spoken about a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq. How many of -- how many are you talking about? And doing what?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I -- all the evidence available to me now suggests that we will be able to complete the drawdown of the five brigade combat teams that General Petraeus recommended last September, and that that take place by the end of July. Obviously we will wait to see General Petraeus's evaluation in March, in terms of what we might be able to do after July.
And I might just take a second to describe the process that I had established last August and that I will use again this time. I've asked General Petraeus to make his evaluation of the situation in Iraq and what he needs, and the situation on the ground, completely based on what's going on in Iraq. But he doesn't need to look over his shoulder, think about stress on the force or anything else. What we need from General Petraeus is his view of the circumstances in Iraq and what he thinks can happen in the second half of 2008.
Independently, I will ask Central Command -- and have asked Central Command, as I did in August -- to do their own independent analysis of Iraq, but in the context of the region for which they are responsible, which includes Afghanistan, in part, and to have a broader perspective as they look at the situation in Iraq.
Independently, the Joint Chiefs will also do an independent analysis, and they will look at the situation in Iraq and the situation in the region against the backdrop of our global requirements, stress on the force and all these other considerations.
As happened in September, each of these three will have the opportunity to provide their views face to face with the president. And as it happened last September, each of them came at the problem with a different perspective and a little different emphasis, but they all were unanimous in support of General Petraeus's recommendations.
We will see what happens in March, but I want to make sure that the president has the opportunity to hear from these different perspectives and to ensure that his senior military advisers and commanders have the opportunity to present their views directly and unvarnished to the president.
I don't know if you want to add anything on that process?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: The process -- no, the consideration -- there's another dimension here; that is, each of these levels of review will be looking not only at what's happening today -- if that were characterized and carried out through July and on into the future if we continue to see progress, what would the character of the force that we would need look like? Heavy on logistics, heavy on command and control, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance versus the military maneuver forces that you see in a brigade combat team.
If the character of the fight changes in a way that we didn't expect, if it goes badly for us, what kind of safeguards do we want to have in place, what kind of safeguards would General Petraeus want in place, what are the implications in the region, so that Admiral Fallon would be looking for that perspective; and for us, implications in a broader global (state ?). So we're not only looking at if the plan continues, but what are the alternatives and what would be the character of the force long term, and it's likely to be heavy in logistics. That's something that's going to take longer to bring on- line and the training and equipping, heavy in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and the command and control. When do you start to move to that configuration to see it? Those are decisions and implications that General Petraeus, Admiral Fallon, the chairman will all have to take into consideration.
Q What sort of numbers are you thinking about long term, Mr. Secretary?
SEC. GATES: Well, as I've indicated before, I think you would -- if you look out several years, I think that you would -- first of all, I think it's important to emphasize -- and for some reason this message doesn't seem to be getting through to folks. We have already begun the process of drawing down. The first Brigade Combat Team has already come out, and we are on track to bring out the other four -- or four additional brigade combat teams by the end of July.
But what the president made clear and what General Petraeus has made clear is, that with the withdrawal of that first Brigade Combat Team, we began the process of a transition of mission. Ultimately, the mission will be one that we call strategic overwatch, which is basically where we are not engaged on a daily basis and where the Iraqis are in the lead and we are providing support, we are going after al Qaeda, we are helping them with their -- protect their borders, and we are doing training and equipping missions. I think that's ultimately where we are headed, and we have begun that process of transition. There are some provinces in Iraq today where there are no coalition forces. There are others where we are in the lead and fighting, as in Diyala and Nineveh. There are others where the Afghans are in the lead.
So this is a dynamic process that -- if you're doing a graphic, Iraq is not going to change from one color to another all at once. It's going to change a province at a time, a local area at a time, and I think that's what we're seeing.
Q Mr. Secretary, when General Petraeus made his recommendation in September, you said at that time that you hoped when you came back in March that he would be able to recommend the pace continue so that at the end of this year the number of troops, then, in Iraq would roughly be a hundred thousand, though that's not the number you gave. Do you still feel that way? I mean, the situation in Iraq appears to have improved considerably in the past six -- or three months, I should say.
SEC. GATES: I will characterize it as I did then and try -- and hope I am consistent. That remains my hope, that the pace of the draw downs in the second half of the year can be what it was in the first half of the year. But as I have told General Petraeus directly, he is to make his evaluation of that possibility based solely on the conditions on the ground.
Q (Off mike) -- given what you've said, do you still, nonetheless, see a call for a broader shift in course in Afghanistan and also changes to the leadership structure that some believe is overly complicated and perhaps undermines the mission?
SEC. GATES: Well, I've had -- I actually asked the Joint Staff last year to look at the command structure, and they did so and came back having talked to all of the different parties involved and examined the situation closely. And they came back and recommended that we leave it as it is, and that is my intent.
We do have this longer-range strategic paper under way in the alliance that I hope we can review at Vilnius and that the leaders will, as a government, will approve in Bucharest that basically lays out what we've accomplished in Afghanistan, why we are there and our plan for the next three to five years in terms of where we want to be, along with some milestones so we'll know whether we're making progress.
Q Mr. Secretary, the process that you've set up to allow General Petraeus, Admiral Fallon and the Joint Staff to express their interest -- I don't want to oversimplify it, but it's pretty clear that General Petraeus will want as many troops as possible to win; also, not to oversimplify the institutional service chiefs back here, that they'll want to reset the force, relieve the stress. If you can't do both, where are your priorities? And General Cartwright, I'd like your comments too, sir.
SEC. GATES: Well, I wouldn't oversimplify General Petraeus's evaluation of the situation and how he sees his needs. I think one of the things that is very much on General Petraeus's mind is where we stand in the training and equipping of the Afghan -- the Iraqi Army and the importance of handing over responsibility to the Iraqi army. That actually, as we all know, is the desired end state.
And so he has to weigh the point at which, in terms of accomplishing his mission, it's more important to put more weight on the Afghans -- on the Iraqis in terms of carrying out these security responsibilities than for the Americans. So I think -- it's not as simple as just, you know, I want all the troops I can have for as long as I can have them. He has to weigh also how he gets to his mission, which is the Iraqis assuming responsibility for their own security. So I think he has to look at it in more dimensions than just how many troops can I keep for as long as I can?
GEN. CARTWRIGHT: But I mean, it's a fair question on the tension and where you sit and your perspective in this activity. What was really heartening, at least from my perspective last year, was that even in that case, as each of the commanders sat down and went through this, we came very, very close. We had very few issues that we disagreed on, and we worked through those issues to consensus to understand how we wanted to move forward.
It's not like -- while General Petraeus sits as the operational commander out there, it's not like Admiral Fallon hasn't been an operational commander or Admiral Mullen hasn't been an operational commander or a combatant commander. And so we do have a sense of the perspectives, and we have a sense of the priorities of perspectives. The important part here is, we don't want everybody looking at the problem from the same direction.
SEC. GATES: Thank you all very much.
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