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Media Availability With U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and French Minister of Defense Herve Morin

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
March 03, 2009
             (Minister Morin's remarks are provided through interpreter.)
            SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. It's a pleasure once again to welcome Minister of Defense Morin to the Pentagon. When he was last here, a little over a year ago, I remarked that Franco-American relations had entered a new era. That has been borne out by the cordial and candid meetings we have had since then, including today's.
            Minister Morin and I discussed many aspects of our relationship, in particular the mission in Afghanistan and the NATO summit next month. France will be co-host, along with Germany, and the meeting will be held on their border. It is a choice of location with great historical significance, for this will be NATO's 60th anniversary.
            Since the founding of the Transatlantic Alliance, we have seen a Europe transformed, with independent democracies replacing captive nations in Central and Eastern Europe, and a democratic Germany re- incorporated into the heart of Europe.   
            France, which has contributed so much to the transformation of Europe, is becoming more integral to NATO. Americans are glad that that is the case, and I look forward to ever closer cooperation with the minister and the French government on a broad range of issues. 
            Mr. Minister, thank you very much for being here today.
            (Cross talk.)   
            MIN. MORIN: Well, just a word, if you will, confirming what my friend Robert Gates was saying.
            We have known each other for almost two years. So we're an old marriage of sorts. And we did indeed discuss the strategy for NATO in Afghanistan.
            We also mentioned -- (inaudible) -- of the Iranian nuclear program and its impact on the rest of the world. And of course, I felt an obligation to mention a future call for tender, regarding an American tanker.
            I reminded my counterpart that opening had to take place in both directions, that you can't be a supplier of military equipment while at the same time thinking that their reciprocity was not possible.
            Also we of course mentioned a topic which, for the French and Americans, is really something that we approach in a very similar manner. And that is the construction of defense, for Europe, and the fact that Europeans need to take at least partially control of their defense.   
            I say "partial" because of course it is a long way between now and the situation where Europe would be able to guarantee its own safety by itself.
            So that would be for our conversations.   Thank you. 
            Mr. Asquin (sp).
            Q     (Through interpreter.) Well, I would like to speak to Mr. Gates. Mr. Gates, a few weeks or months ago you mentioned the efforts made by 20 countries in Afghanistan, and are you a little disappointed by the fact that France is not contributing additional troops?   
            And if you will allow me, I'd like to ask a second question. Mr. Morin yesterday suggested we set a date for the withdrawal of international troops in Afghanistan. Is that also something that you wish -- withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan? Thank you. 
            SEC. GATES: Well -- (chuckles) -- the problem with two-part questions is, I always forget the first part. (Laughter.) 
            Q     (Through interpreter.) I don't mind asking that same question again. I was just reminding you that not too long ago --  
            SEC. GATES: I got it. The -- first of all, I think it's important to recall that France has over 3,000 troops in Afghanistan at this point and so is making a significant contribution. 
            I think that my focus, particularly beginning at the Krakow meeting, was really more to encourage our partners to consider civilian experts. This is an area where we have very limited additional capacity in the United States, and so my focus at Krakow for all of our partners was really more on what could be done in terms of civilian capacity, whether to help governance or police training or economic development and so on. And so that was -- to the degree we discussed it, that's pretty much what we talked about.   
            With respect to a date, I think that one of the -- we would all like to have a situation in which our mission in Afghanistan has been completed and we can bring our troops home. I do not see that happening any time in the near future. And I think it's impossible to put a date on when you might firmly say all the troops are coming out.  
            I think that the objectives that we have and milestones, in terms of measuring achievement of those objectives, is really a principal focus of the strategy review that is under way, on the American side, and where we have been consulting with our partners. And I think we will have a much better idea of the way forward, at least as far as the United States is concerned, when that review is complete.   
            MIN. MORIN: I never mentioned a withdrawal date per se. What did I say? What I said is that we will stay as long as necessary. And so I've been able to note that every time I talked, with a partner, we were able to underscore the capacities and the talent of the French military in this operation.   
            Also the president often mentioned that we do not want to stay forever. And that is the work that we are doing today, in order to try to see to it that Afghanistan can have security and sovereignty.   
            Regarding the processes, we viewed it as taking place within the Obama administration -- (inaudible) -- NATO. What we were both saying, during our meeting, is that we need a process which is military and civilian.   
            We need a development process. We need means and capacity to make it possible for Afghanistan to really take control of its own security in its many facets. And we also needed to set objectives, goals. We needed to set milestones for ourselves, with goals that are clearly defined, for the different topics.   
            Thereby we would be able to who public opinion that these mid- term goals are being met and that as this takes place, we have an avenue, a perspective which is defined and which is presented to public opinion. And we are able to see that one day, we will be able to indeed withdraw from Afghanistan.   
            That is what I explained yesterday and which I can repeat today. We will stay as long as necessary. As the president of the republic said, and as we all say here, we do not want to stay forever. 
            Thirdly, with regards to what is going on at an American administration level or within the alliance, we need qualitative and quantitative goals, as well as intermediary steps. This makes it possible to define a perspective and tell our public (watching us ?) that one day we will, indeed, be able to let the Afghans manage their country. That is what I said. And what I was actually seeing is that this was perfectly in line with the thinking of the American administration -- objectives and milestones, right? 
            SEC. GATES: (Andrew ?)? 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, question for each of you on Afghanistan. First of all, for you, Mr. Secretary, Minister of Defense Wardak, who was here last week, as you know, said that the increased talk in the United States of modest goals of (luring ?) expectations from Afghanistan worried Afghans, reminded them of the 1990s, when they were abandoned. What do you say to that criticism of this increasing talk from you and others of being more modest about your goals?  
            And then for the minister, following on from the secretary's discussion about increased civilian help for Afghanistan, are you willing to offer more civilian help, such as a provincial reconstruction team, which I believe France doesn't have in Afghanistan at the moment? 
            SEC. GATES: When I met with Minister Wardak last week, he raised this concern. And I think that his -- and by the time I talked to him, which was -- actually, I didn't talk to him until Monday -- yesterday. And I think that the conversations that he had here in Washington last week provided considerable reassurance to him that nobody was talking about abandoning Afghanistan, but rather we were trying to come up with shorter-term goals where we could measure progress. And I think that he was considerably reassured by that. 
            MIN. MORIN: I don't really have anything to add. What is our objective? I have said this yesterday. There's really a simple objective. Our objective is for Afghanistan to be a sovereign nation that can provide for its own security over the long term, provide for the security of the Afghan people, that the Afghans can live in peace.  
            Q     (Off mike.) 
            MIN. MORIN: I've already answered that question a number of times. We have already contributed an additional 1,000 troops over the past 12 or 18 months, 250 or 300 within the framework of OMLT; that is, training of the Afghan army. And that's exactly what we're talking about over lunch. For us to be able to leave Afghanistan one day, we need to have an emergence of all those elements which are indeed factors for the sovereignty of a country. We made an effort vis-a-vis the Afghan army. We also need -- that a significant effort is necessary for the Afghan police. We know that there are significant shortcomings there. 
            Now, France contributed almost 300 people for training purposes, and almost 1,000 troops within the framework of our new responsibilities in the eastern region, in the Kapisa Valley. So this is something which is actually unmet by any other European country. There's no other European country that made such an effort over the course of the past 18 months. And so we feel that we have already done part of our job, if you will. 
            As far increasing civilian means, it is an avenue that the European Union should explore. And this actually is evidence of the potential for complementarity between NATO and the European Union. 
            Q     Over the past year, France has expressed a desire to reintegrate NATO. Is this something that you discussed? Where do we stand? Is this already something that has been solved? And if so, what are the terms? 
            SEC. GATES: I think that this is a matter that is still under discussion in the French government, and that's probably a question better directed to Minister Morin. 
            All I can say is that as we contemplate the possibility of France's full participation, in the alliance, we welcome it with open arms.   
            MIN. MORIN: I've already answered this question 20 times. I mean, do you want me to answer for 21st time? I get the feeling I'm repeating myself over and over and over. And now you get my feeling. (Laughter.)   
            Should I ask that question again? No, no, no.   
            Q     President Obama said today that he had sent a letter to Russia, regarding missile defense. Are you trying to essentially put Russians on the spot here and say, you know, all right, go ahead and do something to lessen the Iranian threat, and we will then take away the missile defense program that Russia so detests?   
            And are you concerned at all about the message this sends, to Poland and the Czech Republic, not to have a final answer from the U.S. yet, as to whether you will in fact go ahead with the commitments you've already made in those countries?   
            SEC. GATES: I told the Russians a year ago that if there were no Iranian missile threat that there would be no need for the third site in Europe, the third missile defense site in Europe.   
            I don't think at all that this is trying to put the Russians on the spot. I think it is trying to reopen a dialogue and say, we are open to talking with you, about how we address this problem and how we can move forward. And obviously one approach would be, if we can persuade the Iranians not to go forward with their ballistic missile program, if we'd do that together.   
            Another alternative is, as we have talked with the Russians before, of incorporating them in a partnership that makes them a full partner in missile defense, because the reality is that the missiles that the Iranians are testing can reach a good part of Russia, as well as Eastern Europe and part of Western Europe.   
            These missiles cannot reach the United States at this point. This is part of our commitment to a European missile defense. And so I don't think anybody was trying to put the Russians on the spot.   
            This really was about saying, look, here's the cause of the concern; can we do something about the cause? And if not, then what can we do together to deal with a potential threat to you, the Russians, as well as Western and Eastern Europe?   
            Q     And the message to Poland and Czech Republic?   
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the message that I gave Prime Minister Tusk was, give us a little time. The administration has not had an opportunity to look comprehensively yet at our relationship with Russia and arms control and all the different aspects of the relationship, which includes the potential for a partnership in missile defense.   
            So I think that, I mean, my sense was that the Poles were somewhat reassured. They obviously would like to see us go forward quickly and strongly. But it is a new administration, as is evident. There are many critical issues on the president's plate right now. And this is one that we'll get to as quickly as we can.   
            MIN. MORIN: Thank you very much.   
            SEC. GATES: One more.   
            Q     I wanted to ask you, back on Afghanistan, about Hamid Karzai, your concerns now that he has called for early elections. Everyone virtually says it will be very difficult, because you can't register Afghans, and that security will be problematic if he wants elections by April 21st.   
            Can I ask for your assessment, your assessment about Karzai right now? What do you think he is up to? And do you still agree with President Obama's last statement, that the Afghan leadership appears disconnected from what's going on in their country?   
            SEC. GATES: Well, I would just say this. I think that President Karzai is trying to deal with the reality that the Afghan constitution says that his term of office is over on May 22nd. And he is very concerned, as best I can understand it. He is very concerned about, if he remains as president, after that time, a concern about the appearance, at least the appearance if not the reality of illegitimacy in that office.   
            Now, you have the international elections group as well as ourselves saying that we think it would be difficult to arrange a fair and free election and a relatively secure election, in Afghanistan, before August. And so I think what is in -- what is happening here is an effort to try and figure out what is the best way to bridge the period from May 22nd to an election in August.   
            And I think it's a legitimate concern on the president -- on the part of President Karzai. And I think the international community, as well as the different elements in the Afghan government and parliament, are trying to figure out the right way forward here. 
            Q     (Off mike) -- just a few weeks away. Are U.S. troops going to be fighting in a country when we're not really sure who's running the country? Do you think if he stays past April 21st, he will have a legitimate government? What's the U.S. position on this? 
            SEC. GATES: I believe that -- I believe that there will be a government in Afghanistan after May 22nd that has legitimacy and has support for that legitimacy from different elements of the country and government. 
            Thank you all.

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