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Roundtable With Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Krakow, Poland

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
February 19, 2009
            SEC. GATES: I'm just going to say a quick word and then take your questions. I think we had a very good set of meetings today. The focus was principally on Afghanistan: first in the operations session this morning -- or early this afternoon -- and then -- or at the lunch, I guess -- and then in the late afternoon session, which was a meeting of all of the contributing nations in Afghanistan.  A lot of focus on the run-up to the Afghan elections in August and the importance of added security, what more people can do, but also on the civilian side.
           
            I think it was a good exchange of views. We got this evening a report from Minister Wardak in terms of his view of the situation. And my personal view was it was very important to hear from him. It's very important to hear from the Afghans, their perspective on how things are going because it's fundamentally their fight and we are helping them. And the more we see them in leadership, the better it is.
           
            Talked a little bit about -- in my bilateral meetings with a number of people -- about the review of U.S.-Afghan policy and strategy that is going on, stressing the inclusiveness of that effort.  There will be Afghan and Pakistani teams coming to the U.S. to work with us on it. I think Ambassador Holbrooke will be going to Brussels to meet with the North Atlantic Council and the participating nations that are not in NATO are also being consulted. So it's a very inclusive process that includes our allies, not only our allies in NATO but people in the region and our other partners.
           
            So why don't I just stop there and take your questions? Yeah.
           
            Q     Mr. Secretary -- (inaudible) -- of the Czech Republic. With regard to the missile defense and all these considerations like economic factor and technology and diplomacy tools, Iran and Russia, do you think it could be expected that the U.S. would retreat from the treaty signed with Poland and the Czech Republic?
           
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that as the vice president said in Munich, we continue to be very concerned about the Iranian missile threat, particularly as they continue work on what we believe are weapons of mass destruction. Their launch of a satellite shows that they are increasing their ability to build missiles or rockets with considerable range. And both in the context of cost effectiveness and technology, we will continue to move forward. But we are also going to work with our allies. We have a NATO commitment that was made at Bucharest by all of the heads of government. And we also are very interested in continuing to pursue our efforts to persuade the Russians to partner with us in this endeavor. And my hope is that now, with the new administration, the prospects for that kind of cooperation might have improved.
           
            MR.     : Sir, one second. We're going to alternate between American press and the visiting press. We'll come right to you. Yes?
           
            Q     Following on that, Mr. Secretary, your Polish counterpart said after the meeting today that he had wanted to hear from you whether the U.S. planned to go forward with partnership with Poland and that he hoped that that would happen. What is your view about whether the current structure of the missile defense program should continue as it is?
           
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think again -- I think the key is keeping in mind what the threat is. And the reason that we are pursuing -- have pursued a third site is because of the Iranian missile programs. I told the Russians a year ago that if there were no Iranian missile program, there would be no need for the missile sites. So one approach would be to see if we can get better Russian cooperation in dealing with some of the activities that are going on in Iran.
           
            The fact is that between the economic crisis, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the administration has not yet reviewed where it is on a whole range of issues, including relationships with our allies, the missile defense program, the relationship with the Russians. These things are all, in many respects, tied together, including Iran. And so I think the answer is, we're just asking. What I told the defense minister today was they just have to give us a little time to review these things.
           
            MR.     : Yes, sir?
           
            Q     Mr. Secretary of Defense, there have been lots of talk about the new strategy in new U.S. administration. You have been part of the old and new administration. Can you explain this strategy, if not the overall strategy, at least the military part of it?
           
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that first of all there was a recognition toward the end of last year even in the Bush administration that we needed to take another look at our strategy. And in particular, the conclusions there were we needed to think in shorter terms than 20 or 30 years from now. We needed to think in terms of how do we improve, help the Afghan people and government improve the security and social situation, governance situation in Afghanistan over the next three to five years. And what are realistic attainable goals? So I think that those are some of the same questions that are being asked as part of the strategy review that's underway by the new administration. And essentially, the old administration handed off its review to the new administration as -- to be one of the elements involved in the more comprehensive review by the new administration. And so I think that it really is focused on how, how can, how can we help Afghanistan, we and our partners, in the nearer term, in terms of not only their security but in terms of governance, in terms of economic development and so on? And the review is still underway. I expect it will take several more weeks, in part because we are trying to be inclusive and get the views of everyone. And so we'll just have to wait and see when the review is done what the conclusions are. 
 
            Q     (Inaudible.)
 
            MR.     : I'm going to -- I'm sorry, but time -- I'm going to have to -- we have time for a follow-up, we'll come around. Yeah, Tom?
 
            Q     On the question of supply lines for Afghanistan, Kyrgyz's party today voted in the mid-afternoon from the U.S. that they have to close the base at Manas in six months. What is your sense, Mr. Secretary, of how great a loss that would be? And can you please update us on planning for alternative routes?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, as I have said, it's a -- Manas is important, but it's not irreplaceable. And we are going to continue to work the problem with the Kyrgyz. We have not resigned ourselves to this being the last, the last word. We are clearly -- as I said, we have looked at alternatives and have been talking to a number of different, a number of different countries, and you know, I think, I think we are speaking now, for myself, since the Department of Defense will have to pay the bill, I think we are prepared to look at the fees and see if there is justification for a somewhat larger payment. But, but we're not going to be ridiculous about it. It's -- we're prepared to do something that we think is reasonable. So I haven't written us off yet, and my hope is that we can walk this back with the Kyrgyz and continue the arrangement. As I say, it is, it is an important base, but it's not so important that we're going to waste taxpayer dollars paying something that's exorbitant.
 
            Q: Martin Arigoto (ph) with El Pais, from Spain. You started your -- in your position just a couple of years ago. I sat in this kind of informal meeting in Seville at the time, and I remember vividly that that moment was considered a big success, having something like 35,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, because Europeans -- (inaudible) -- saw this and finally we decided to put -- there were some -- everybody was happy. Now we are on the brink of arriving to 80,000, and we are not sure what is going to happen. What is going to happen? What has changed in these two years? Were we too frivolous in our strategies that we need to change because after five years fighting, we were unable to find the right strategy -- (inaudible, cross talk).
 
            SEC. GATES: No, I don't think so, I think that the circumstances -- in many respects, the circumstances have changed. During the period of 2000, we began to see a significant upsurge in -- or a growth of violence in Afghanistan to new levels beginning about 2006. And when I first came to the job, to this job in December of 2006, what we were anticipating was a new Taliban surge, or a new Taliban offensive in the spring of 2007. 
 
            And we decided that it would become our offensive instead, and so I extended an American brigade, I added another American brigade, but what we also saw during this period during the mid-part of the decade was the Pakistanis arriving at some of these agreements on the, on their side of the boarder in Waziristan and some of these other places that actually gave the -- they basically stopped fighting these guys, and it gave them, in essence, a safe haven. And what we have seen is a steady increase in violence, really since that time. 
           
            And so you have -- the main circumstance that has happened, I think, has been that, that you have seen a safe haven, to a considerable extent, for the Taliban, and they've been joined not only by al Qaeda but by sort of affiliated groups, groups like Gulbaddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network, that are all now working together. And they're coming across the border and creating problems, and so we've been pleased to see the Pakistani military come back to that area over the last year and begin working it. But there's, there's no question that the level of violence has increased steadily for the last two or three years, and so I think the circumstances have changed. 
           
            And one of the problems that we have had is that as that violence has increased, we have had -- we have increased the number of troops fairly substantially. In fact, our NATO and non-NATO partners have increased their troop contribution by about 15,000 over the past 15 months or so, 18 months. And we have increased, obviously steadily increased our presence as well. What we have not had, though, is particularly in the south, enough troops to be able to hold onto areas where we had cleared the Taliban out before. And so what we are doing with this troop increase is that we hope that this will create a situation in which we can have a more or less continuing presence with our Afghan partners, the Afghan national army in particular, in terms of bringing security to the population, first in the lead-up to the election and then after that, because without that kind of security, economic development is very difficult. 
           
            So I think it -- what we have seen is, circumstances changed on the Pakistani side of the border, there was a safe haven, the Taliban and others used that as an opportunity to begin coming back. Frankly, the difficulties that the Afghan government has faced in getting services and things to the people have probably contributed. There have been huge increases under the current Afghan government, there have been significant increases in health care and the building of schools, in the number of children going to school, especially the number of girls going to school. So there have been a number of advances, but the security situation has just gotten more challenging, and that's what we're dealing with.
 
            MR.     : Julie.
 
            Q     Dr. Gates, yesterday you spoke of asking the allies for more civilian contributions to the Afghanistan war effort. I wonder if you had a chance to talk to any of them about that, and I wonder if in response, today or separately, did they give you any indication of what they want to see out of the strategy review, what kind of input -- what they would like to see the strategy be?
 
            SEC. GATES: I think that the short answer to your answer is no. We really didn't discuss the content of the review, either in the larger sessions or in my bilateral meetings. But I did, in my remarks at the larger meetings, talk about the importance of contributions, and contributions very soon, particularly in the security arena, to try and get additional capability there before the elections to provide security so the Afghan people can vote in August. But I talked about more of a contribution in terms of governance, in terms of economic development, rule of law, all of these things where we can help -- where we can partner with the Afghan government and help make it more effective.
 
            MR.     : Right here.
 
            Q     Secretary, John Hutton this morning said he'd not been asked for any -- to send any more troops to Afghanistan. Will you be asking --
 
            SEC. GATES: I'm sorry, who?
 
            Q     John Hutton, Secretary, U.K. secretary of defense, said he'd not been asked to send any more troops to Afghanistan. Will you be asking him to send any more troops and how do you feel that our troops -- the British troops have done -- (inaudible, cross talk)?
 
            SEC. GATES: I don't believe that we have made any specific asks at this point. I think one of the subjects that is being pursued in tandem with the Strategic Review is, what precisely do we want to ask different countries to do? And so I think that may come, but we have not done it yet. 
           
            Q     And how do you feel the British have performed in the South?
           
            SEC. GATES: I think the British have done tremendously. They've been very courageous; they've been out there. I think that British soldiers -- I mean, all of -- particularly those who -- let's face it, most of the toughest fighting is going on in RC-South, and all of the nations down there, I think, have done of tremendous job and shown tremendous courage -- the British, Canadians, the Australians, the Danes, the Dutch. I just think that they're -- the Poles -- have made a terrific contribution.
           
            MR.     : David?
           
            Q     Mr. Secretary, how receptive do you think NATO partners have been to your expression of the need for further security forces -- (inaudible, background noise) -- and what bearing did Minister Wardak -- (inaudible) -- have on that issue -- (inaudible)?
           
            SEC. GATES: Well, again, I haven't really had an opportunity to talk with very many people about the specifics, but I would say, just based on the comments that others made at the table, I think that there is a shared belief that we need to do more in terms of providing security in the run up to the Afghan election. There is very strong support for the expansion of the Afghan army. There was a lot of talk today about what more we could all do in terms of helping train the Afghan national police. 
           
            I think all of us see the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police as, really, being the institutions that, over time, take leadership of this struggle for Afghan security. And we're already partnering particularly with the ANA in a lot of our operations. But I think that there was a -- particularly with respect to the police, I think, more than I have heard in the past -- there was an expression of the importance of helping train and expand the Afghan national police.
           
            Q     And Minister Wardak -- what did he say about the current situation?
           
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that he and Ambassador Kai Eide have both made reports late this afternoon, and I would say that both reports were very realistic. I thought they were balanced. Minister Wardak, as always, expressed the gratitude of the Afghan people for the help they're getting from all the different countries and entities around the world. And I think his focus, clearly, is on the expansion of the Afghan national army and getting that done as quickly as possible. And I think everybody, including him, believes they're ahead of schedule on that. 
           
            Q     (Inaudible). Mr. Secretary, whether there was an agreement on missile defense -- (inaudible) -- already signed the declaration of -- (inaudible) -- with Poland. And if the project for missile defense is put on hold or cancelled, will the United States be ready to implement the declaration in its full text?
           
            SEC. GATES: I think, in fact, the next -- I think, and if I remember correctly, the next consultative meeting that was set up by that will take place between now and the NATO summit, and we will have the first high-level security group meeting later this year. So the answer is yes. 
           
            Q     Secretary, how does the global financial crisis color your deliberations -- the overall deliberations as the first defense minister -- (inaudible) -- when the economy has changed quite as much as it has?
           
            SEC. GATES: Actually, there was less focus on -- less mention of that today than I would have expected. There have been a few people -- I won't name names -- but there have been a few who've said that they are not cutting back on their commitment but they are unable to increase their commitment as much as they would like because of budgetary pressures. A number of these ministers of defense are taking some pretty good budget cuts. But what I found impressive, actually, today, was, by inference at least, the fact that people aren't using the economic crisis as an excuse to cut back on their contributions or to walk away from their commitments in Afghanistan, which I found very encouraging, frankly.
           
            Q     (Inaudible.) I was wondering, part of the change of strategy in Iraq was arming local militias; do you think this is an option for Afghanistan, too? And secondly, what, in concrete terms, could be done to change the situation in the tribal areas in Pakistan?
           
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the -- in the first place, taking the second part of your question -- the Pakistani army has been in the fight in along that border. They have taken a lot of casualties. They have been fighting steadily for a number of months. And I think that they have clearly, as we would say, be in the fight. In terms of the -- what was the first part of your question again?
           
            Q     Arming local militias.
           
            SEC. GATES: Oh, I think what we want to be very careful about -- first of all, there are very significant differences between Afghanistan and Iraq, and trying to apply lessons from one to the other too precisely, I think, is not very helpful. On the other hand, it is clear that, as I suggested today, that we not only need to continue working with the central government in Kabul, but we also need to do a better job of working with the provincial and district governments in Afghanistan.
           
            The last thing the Afghans want is for us, in some way, to recreate warlords. And so the question is, how can you engage the local population in defense of their own population -- of their own schools and things like that? And that's what we're exploring, I think, with our Afghan partners. And how do you tie whatever that is to the central government, to the provincial government, so that it's not sitting out here as a warlord coming along -- as a new kind of warlord. So I think we're very mindful of that history and determined to do our best to avoid it. But I think there does need to be outreach at the local and provincial level, as well as cooperation at the national level.
           
            Q     But how would you do that in practice? Is this kind of a neighborhood watch program?
           
            SEC. GATES: Well, frankly, we're still working it. I mean, as was the case, I think -- and now, I am going to draw a parallel to Iraq -- you know, one of the things you don't have to worry about in either country is arming anybody. And so this is really more of a matter of how you partner with people and how you engage with them. And I think that General McKiernan and Minister Wardak and others in the -- and the interior minister -- are all working together to figure out what's the best way to try and do this.
           
            MR.     : Yeah, Ken?
           
            Q     Mr. Secretary, I would like to return to Manas for a moment: You said that your working the problem with the Kyrgyz government; are you also working the problem with the Russian government, and if so, what is your sense of what the Russians may be interested in?
           
            SEC. GATES: I think the way I'd prefer to leave it right now is that we are talking to a number of governments about access. And that includes the Russians.
           
            Q     But the Russians specifically with regard to access to Manas?
           
            SEC. GATES: I'm not sure that we have directly engaged the Russians on Manas, yet.
           
            MR.     : Yes, sir?
           
            Q     (Inaudible) -- from Polish radio RMF FM. Mr. Secretary, let me ask you about the future of the alliance: Is the U.S. administration ready to support this year the candidate from new NATO members for a post of secretary general?
           
            SEC. GATES: I will give you an honest answer, and that is I have not had one word of conversation with my colleagues in the American government about that subject yet.
           
            Q     And what's your opinion?
           
            SEC. GATES: I think that we want the best possible candidate, and the one that will have the broadest support within the alliance. There's a lot that needs to be done. I'm a strong supporter of headquarters reform in the alliance, in terms of allowing the secretary-general, giving the secretary general more authority to move money and people around. So we need a strong executive. And -- but I have not had a single discussion about it at this point.
 
            MR.     : Daphne
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, now that President Obama has decided to increase troops in Afghanistan, and so Afghanistan was his first priority, his dedication now will be towards reviewing the strategy in Iraq, and when should we expect a decision regarding further withdrawals in Iraq?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, the review of -- in Iraq -- the review of our strategy and approach in Iraq is underway, and frankly I don't know when it will be done, but I presume sometime next month, maybe earlier. It's hard to tell.
 
            MR.     : Brian (ph)?
 
            SEC. GATES: To follow up on one of your answers, one of the criticisms in Afghanistan, the operation, has been a lack of unity of command between the NATO forces and the U.S. forces. Can you talk about whether or not, number one, that has come up in your discussions today, but also just give us your view on how additional American forces -- but, as you would make also some additional NATO capabilities, could be brought together to bear in a more effective way, since there has not been a unity of command in some areas, and also if you can address the caveat issue, which has come up many, many times. How do you crack that?
 
            SEC. GATES: Last fall, I made a change in the command structure. And double-hatted -- General McKiernan not only as a commander of ISAF, but also as commander of all U.S. forces Afghanistan. And so he now has under his authority virtually all of the forces inside Afghanistan, and frankly, since I made that move, I have not heard a single complaint from any of our allies about command problems or difficulties with respect to unity of command. 
 
            With respect to -- and so I think that problem has largely been addressed. With respect to caveats, it continues to be a problem. We've been singing this song ever since Riga, and it -- and every meeting, we say, we really wish you guys would take your caveats off. At the Bucharest Summit last year, some countries did either remove their caveats or diminish their impact. But there are still a number, and I can't remember if General Craddock used a number today, but there are still something like 40 or 50 caveats among the different nations that have them. And it's obviously a complication.
 
            MR.     : Al, pass it.
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, how does the troop-buildup coming out in Afghanistan affect the importance of Manas and how much you might be willing to pay for it, and do you believe that missile defense is technologically feasible and cost effective?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I -- first of all, that's a twofer, isn't it? (Laughter.)
 
            Q     Yes, it was. Thank you for noticing.
 
            SEC. GATES: (Chuckles.) I think -- I think that the, the thinking and planning that has been done in terms of alternative networks takes into account the increase of U.S. troop levels and the requirements that they will impose over and above what we already have. With respect to missile defense, I think that because that's such a leading question -- (laughter) -- and because this issue hasn't been reviewed by the administration yet, I think I'll punt.
 
            MR.     : Okay? I think that's everybody.
 
            Q     (Inaudible) -- one of my colleagues?
           
            MR.     : I'm sorry?
 
            Q     You give evaluation and -- (inaudible) -- of that one -- you were saying that there is no -- (inaudible) -- in the structure -- the military structure of the command, that there -- (inaudible, cross talk).
 
            SEC. GATES: Correct.
 
            Q     -- but -- (inaudible) -- are trying to emphasize the civilian side of the operation, and in that field, there is no connection at all between the military side of the civilian side of the operations -- (inaudible, cross talk).
 
            SEC. GATES: Actually --
 
            Q     What is your thinking about that?
 
            SEC. GATES: Actually, that's not right. There is a connection, and it is Ambassador Kai Eide. And he has -- he has developed a very close relationship, a very good relationship with General McKiernan, and I think that we have -- because Ambassador Eide has finally been given substantial additional resources, both people and money, by the U.N., just in recent months, his ability to do the job that he was given, that he was asked to take on, has significantly been improved and enhanced. And so I think -- I think you're seeing a significant improvement in the coordination of the civil-military arena. 
 
            Part of the problem that ambassador Eide is, he doesn't know what everybody's doing. The countries that are engaged in the -- not on the military side, on the civilian side, he doesn't know who is spending what kind of money on what kind of projects. So that they're -- so that he can do the kind of coordination and sharing of best practices and so on that we -- that he would like to do. 
           
            I'm a big admirer of Eide, and I think that he's been given a very tough job, and I think he's doing it with a great deal of patience and a great deal of skill. And I am very encouraged. I met with General McKiernan the other day, before I left Washington, and he was talking about his relationship Eide and how they're working together closely. I met with Eide here today, and he said the same thing on the military side. So I'm actually more encouraged -- quite a bit more encouraged about this civil-military coordination than I was even as recently as the Budapest meeting last fall.
 
            MR.     : Okay, thanks.
 
            SEC. GATES: Thank you. Thank you all.
 
            ALL: Thank you.
 
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