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Secretary Robert Gates Interview with Afghan TV

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
April 03, 2009

Conducted March 31, 2009   

 

            Q    Thank you, Mr. Gates -- Secretary Gates, to give us the time to have an interview.

               

                SEC. GATES:  (Inaudible.)

 

                Q    Mr. Secretary, the first question I'm going to ask you about is civilian casualties in Afghanistan.  The civilian casualties in Afghanistan is day-by-day increasing.  And we know the people as being in an anger somehow in rural areas of Afghanistan.  What do you think how does the -- (your new ?) strategy can address that problem in Afghanistan?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think one of the ways that it will address the problem is that by having more forces partnering with Afghan forces, there will be less of a requirement for air power.  Usually air power is called in when units, ours or our coalition partners or Afghan troops, get into trouble.  And I think having more troops on the ground will make a difference in this. 

 

                This is a source of great concern to us.  As I said when I was in Kabul last time, we are deeply, deeply regretful of any casualties, any civilian casualties.  Our aim is to try and go after those who are hurting the Afghan people, the extremists and the insurgents, and they mingle with innocent people and make it very difficult sometimes. 

 

                And so what we have tried to do is change our strategy and make sure that we apologize if there's any chance that someone innocent has been hurt or killed, and make amends, and then do an investigation.  So both our change in approach as well as the change in our strategy we very much hope will lead to further reductions in civilian casualties.

 

                I think it's worth pointing out it is a great regret when there are civilian casualties, but when they are the result of our operations, they are accidental.  The violent extremists kill these people -- kill innocent Afghans on purpose.

 

                Q    There seems to be a lack of understanding also between the U.S. military objectives and the Afghan people over there.  It has been almost like eight years of conflict back there since 2001 that the Taliban regime was ousted by U.S. and its allies' forces.  What needs to be done to convince the people to be more patient?  And can you assure them that the end is near?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think first of all that the new strategy, involving significant additional development assistance and a large number of civilian experts in agriculture and veterinarians and physicians and lawyers to help with governance issues, all will, hopefully, working with the Afghan government both at the national level and at the provincial and district level, show the Afghan people that their life will be better, that life will improve thanks to these international efforts.  And I expect we will have significant additional resources along these lines. 

 

                It has been a long struggle.  The Afghan people have suffered for a long time from people trying to tell them how to run their lives -- the Soviets and now the Taliban and the extremists.  And we're there as partners with the Afghan people to help them be able to govern themselves, and without somebody from the outside telling them how to do it.

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, you mentioned a good point, the things that happened politically are not visible to those people who are living in rural areas.  The most concerning -- the big concern that the people of Afghanistan are having nowadays is about the security, which has been worsening since 2001.  How you can (comfort ?) them that security will get better, because it has not been improved yet?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think that there are two things.  The most important thing is for us to help the Afghan people expand their own army and police.  After all, Afghans must protect their own security, when all is said and done.  And so we want to help them do that.  And we are sending a lot more trainers.  We are going to provide money to expand the army and the police so that they can, in partnership with us, provide better security for the Afghan people in the near term.

 

                Ultimately, it will all be the responsibility of the Afghan army and the Afghan police.  We have no desire to be in Afghanistan any longer than we have to to help Afghans make their own country secure.

 

                Q     So when will the United States forces leave Afghanistan?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think we will leave when the Afghan forces are strong enough to ensure security in Afghanistan itself.

 

                Q     So can you -- (inaudible) -- a definition for ensuring the security for the Afghan people, when they're going to be -- feel -- I mean, feeling secure?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, my hope is -- and I think that it certainly is the president's hope -- that with the additional forces we are sending in, with the additional police training that the Europeans are going to provide and with the expansion of the Afghan army, that they will begin to see an improvement in security fairly soon.  That certainly is our hope.

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, the new Obama administration policy calls for increased engagement with the people in order to overcome this trust deficit.  Can you talk about some of the concrete ways the U.S. plans on overcoming this challenge in Afghanistan?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Clearly, we want the Afghan people to trust us and to trust our coalition partners that we are there to help them, not for purposes of our own other than the same purpose that the Afghan people have, which is for Afghanistan not to be a safe haven for terrorists who kill them and want to kill us.  And so we need to build the trust that we are in this together, that we are partners and that we have no objectives in Afghanistan other than helping the Afghan people secure their own country.

 

                Q     And Secretary Gates, what concerns the U.S. about Pakistan's agreements with the Pakistani Taliban in Swat Valley?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Some of the agreements in the western part of Pakistan are a concern to us.  In fact, it was some of those agreements in 2006 -- 2005, 2006 that we believe led to the increase in the number of violent extremists coming across the border into Afghanistan.  They no longer had to worry about Pakistani troops because of the deals were -- that were made under President Musharraf.

 

                I think the Pakistani government is coming to understand that what is going on in western Pakistan is as great a danger to the government in Islamabad as it is to Afghanistan.  And they have -- the Pakistani army has been doing a lot of fighting.  A number of -- thousands of Pakistani soldiers have died in the western part of the country fighting these extremists.  And one of our goals in this new strategy is to see how we can improve cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, who have a common interest in getting rid of these extremists.

 

                Q     President Obama called on Pakistan to take stronger action against insurgents and terrorism.  What could the U.S. actually do to push Pakistan into a more effective policy within its territory or within its borders?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, like Afghanistan, Pakistan is a sovereign country, and so we will need to partner with them as well.  What we are doing is making clear to them that we are prepared to be a long-term ally and partner of Pakistan, that we will help them deal with their security problems.  We're prepared to provide gear and training to enhance their counterinsurgency capabilities there in the western part of the country.

 

                We're also prepared to try and provide additional economic assistance to Pakistan, because they face a number of challenges in that area as well.  So I think the key here is the partnership with Pakistan and the partnership with Afghanistan.

 

                Q     So, Mr. Secretary, what kind of pressure do you think U.S. would put on ISI to stop cooperating with Taliban?

 

                SEC. GATES:  The ISI's contacts with some of these extremist groups -- with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Haqqani network, Commander Nazir (sp) and others -- are a real concern to us, and we have made these concerns known directly to the Pakistanis.  And we hope that they will take action to put an end to it.

 

                Q     And a question about U.S. drones.  Are U.S. drones flying from Afghanistan to hit militant hideouts in Pakistan territory?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I can't talk about our military operations, obviously.  But the president has made clear that we will go after al Qaeda and their planning cells and their training centers, wherever they are in the world.

 

                Q     But I will ask you this question, because President Karzai has assured Pakistan that he's recognizing and--  respect the sovereignty of Pakistan, and that's why if drones are flying from Afghanistan, and if they attack Pakistan, the hideouts of Taliban (in there ?), wouldn't it be a disrespect or a disloyalty to Pakistan from President Karzai?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, all I can say, again, is that our priority is going after al Qaeda.  And we will go after them wherever they are.

 

                Q     Secretary Gates, you have now served both Presidents Bush and Obama.  Is the Obama administration less supportive of President Karzai than the previous administration?

 

                SEC. GATES:  The government of the United States supports the government of Afghanistan.  Who is president of Afghanistan is up to the Afghan people, and whoever they elect, the United States will support and work with.  Our interest is in having free and fair elections in Afghanistan.

 

                Q     In Afghanistan, it appears that the Obama administration is kind of less tolerant of Karzai government, even to being like a -- the strategy to be a little bit more tough on the President Karzai government in there?

 

                SEC. GATES:  No, I wouldn't characterize it that way.  I think that -- that the U.S. government has been straightforward with the Afghan government about the need to improve governance, and particularly in the provinces and the districts; to deal with the narcotics problem; and to deal with corruption.  But I would tell you that the Bush administration made those same points.

 

                Q     So about corruption, as you know, corruption is an ongoing problem in Afghanistan.  President Obama has said that we cannot turn a blind eye to the corruption that causes Afghans to lose faith on their leaders.  What can you tell me about a proposed regimen with the Afghan government to crack down the corruption in Afghanistan?

 

                SEC. GATES:  What we are trying to do and what our strategy is with respect to narcotics is really focused on the drug lords, the drug kingpins and the laboratories that provide money that support the violent extremists.  And that really has been the focus of our efforts.  We're less interested in individual farmers than we are those who are profiting from their efforts and supporting the extremists.  So that's the focus of our strategy.

 

                Q     And the Obama administration has said it's willing to negotiate with the Taliban, with those kind of Taliban which are so-called good Taliban, or low-level Taliban.  And Karzai has also said that, but Karzai has asked even Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, to come on the negotiation table.  Will the Obama administration, or the U.S. administration, follow this order?  Because Mullah Omar has been named as a terrorist.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Yes, I -- I don't know about Mullah Omar, but it is clear that -- to us, that there are a number of Taliban who fight mainly because they get paid, but they are not ideologically committed.  They are not extremists, if you will.  They do it because they get paid.  And there is some hope that if there is alternative employment, if there are alternatives for some of these people, that in fact we could reconcile.

 

                Our position has been very fundamental, though.  Any reconciliation must be on the terms of the Afghan government, and has to be on terms that recognize the sovereignty of that government and its monopoly on the use of force within the country.

 

                Q     President Karzai endorsed the new Obama plan; call it more than Afghan expected.  It includes 4,000 U.S. troops to help train Afghans, on the top of 17,000 new U.S. combat troops.  But it also calls for contribution from other countries.  Basically, what specific countries, what type of contributions can Afghanistan expect?  And when will the training end?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think that the contributions will come in several forms.  First, we're asking for contributions to the NATO trust fund for sustaining Afghan National Army and police over the long term.  So we're asking for money for that trust fund.

 

                Second, we're asking them to provide particularly police trainers.  The Gendarmerie, the Guardia Civil, the Caribinieri in Italy, these different European police forces have the kind of capabilities that we believe the Afghan National Police need.  And I believe that you will see these European countries making some commitments to provide those kind of trainers.

 

                A third area that we're asking for help is civilian experts -- I mentioned earlier in the -- in our interview -- people who are experts in agriculture, veterinarians, people who can help with governance and making government more effective, providing potable water and so on.  And so we are asking for a substantial increase in the number of experts in these areas that can come in and actually help improve the lives of the Afghan people.

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, about Iran role in Afghanistan, there are some reports that Iran is supporting the Taliban somehow, with money or arms, in order to undermine United States influence in that area.  How will the -- (inaudible) -- United States-Iranian relationship affect U.S. strategy in Afghanistan?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I'm struck by the fact that the Iranians apparently are sending a representative to the conference in The Hague, where we will be talking about assistance for Afghanistan.  So I think that the Iranians are interested in good relationship with the government of Afghanistan, but there's no doubt that they also are providing at least limited support for the Taliban in an effort to create problems for the U.S. and for our coalition partners.

 

                Q     And you talked about the new strategic stresses on narcotics and drug dealers and the strategic stress on the importance of breaking the link between narcotics and the insurgency.  And it's also calling for the focus to shift from farmers to drug -- to drug lords.  Now, why is it important and how will it be achieved?  And what's the importance of this?  Why has it not been done before?  Because it was the poppy eradication fields process going on since 2005 and 2006.  But how you can -- how you can follow drug lords now?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think that we require good intelligence, which we often get from our Afghan partners in terms of finding out who these people are.  It is important to identify the labs -- where are the drug labs.

 

                The narcotics trade is a concern for two reasons:  First, it provides money for the extremists.  Estimates range anywhere from 70 to $100 million a year that the extremists get, the Taliban and others get, from the drug traffic.  The second concern is that the narcotics trade in Afghanistan, just like in every other country in the world, feeds corruption and undermines the legitimacy of government.  And so for both of those reasons, it's important to go after this. 

 

                As far as eradication is concerned, my opinion is that unless farmers are provided with alternative means of earning a living and unless they're provided with the resources to get them through the winter, until a new crop of wheat or whatever they're growing is able to be harvested and marketed, unless you can provide the resources for those people, to make a living and support their families, crop eradication only radicalizes people.  And so I think it has to be done very carefully and in a way that provides an alternative means of living for the farmer. 

 

                Q     And I understand that a major component of the new narcotic strategy, in Afghanistan, involves sending dozens of drug enforcement agents to that country, to battle the drug-finance elements of the insurgency. 

 

                How will these agents be fit into Afghanistan? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  I hadn't heard about that part of the strategy.  But I'm sure that it will be to partner with the Afghan army and the Afghan police, in trying to deal with this problem, because the army has its own unit to deal with -- its own units to deal with -- the Afghan army has its own units to deal with narcotics. 

 

                Q     About the American strategy towards Afghanistan, do you believe Americans are supporting the action of the government? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Yes, I do. 

 

                Americans remember that Afghanistan was dominated, ruled by the Taliban.  It was a safe haven for al Qaeda, for the people who attacked this country and killed 3,000 of our citizens.  And so I think Americans have continued to be supportive of our efforts, to try and help ensure that a democratically elected Afghan government is not threatened by the extremists who were once overthrown. 

 

                Q     There are some sayings that the Americans are divided into two parts, one supporting sending troops to Afghanistan and keeping them there, and the others, that they are not supporting it. 

 

                What would it be like, one day, they should call for a stop?  And what would Afghanistan do on that day? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  I don't think that that's likely to happen anytime soon.  I think the president has laid out a very strong strategy.  I think most of the political leaders, in our country, have come out in favor of this strategy and in support of it.  So I think that the Afghan people can count on the partnership and the commitment of the United States for a long time. 

 

                Q     President Obama has said that after years of assistance to Pakistan, the U.S. will not provide a blank check.  Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists in its territory. 

 

                He also talked about the use of soft power, like the pending -- (inaudible) -- legislation that links economic assistance to -- (inaudible) -- eliminating militants.  But will you please talk about this two-pronged approach?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, clearly we want to make sure that the money we are spending, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, is being spent to good effect and to deal with the threats to both countries.  And one of the things that is new about the strategy is that we are going to create benchmarks or criteria by which to evaluate the success of the efforts that we are making, the efforts the Afghan government is making in recruiting soldiers to its army and its police, as well as the effectiveness of the Pakistanis in dealing with the problems in their western part.

 

                Q    And about Karzai asking cooperation from Russia, I'm going to ask you, like, in response to a request that Karzai made to Russia, the Russian government has said that they're willing to equip Afghan military forces or Afghan army, beside that the United States is training Afghan forces.  How do you think United States will come on this (conflict/contact ?) from Russia in that time?

               

                SEC. GATES:  Russia is concerned about instability and the threat to the government of Afghanistan, as are we.  They are particularly concerned by the amount of drugs coming out of Afghanistan and into Russia, which has become a problem for them.  So I think they are willing to help.  They are providing us with some assistance in getting our supplies into Afghanistan.  So I think that they can play a constructive role here.

 

                I think the real issue is the eagerness of the Afghan people and government to engage once again with the Russians.  They have some long experience in that respect.

 

                Q    It wouldn't be a conflict of two different strategies, Russian strategy and U.S. strategy in Afghanistan?  It wouldn't be a conflict again in there?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think if they were going to be training, clearly we would have to work together to make sure that there was consistency in the process, just as we do with our other coalition partners.

 

                Q     And one more question about the narcotics.  Why do you think Helmand has been a bit -- being the second-largest producer of narcotics in Afghanistan, and there are British forces located there, why it is happening Helmand is not getting better?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, part of the problem is that a lot of extremists are coming across the border from Pakistan into Helmand, and security has been a big problem in Helmand.  That's one of the reasons why a number of the new U.S. forces will go into Helmand, to help the British and to help the Afghan army as well down there.

 

                I think a big reason that Helmand has been a particular problem is that it is where the Taliban had been the most entrenched, and it would be the most difficult to get them out of there.

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, I would like to ask you the last question, and it will be on Iraq.  A lot -- what are the main challenges that lie ahead for Iraq to stand on its own militarily, politically and economically?  And what are the key benchmarks to hit for U.S. troops to come home?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, U.S. troops are coming home.  And they -- we are bringing out two additional brigades.  We are down from a high of 20 brigades to -- we'll be at 12 a little later this summer.  And we have to be out of the cities by the end of June this year and out of Afghanistan altogether by the end of -- out of Iraq --

 

                Q     Iraq.

 

                SEC. GATES:  -- by the end of 2011.  The president has announced that all of our combat units will be out by August of 2010.  So we are coming out of Iraq, and I think it's a manifestation of our confidence in the progress that has been made there. 

 

                They do have problems.  They still need to get a hydrocarbon law passed in terms of sharing the revenues from their oil.  There clearly are challenges ahead in terms of reconciliation.  This is a brand-new democracy.  But I think we were very heartened by the outcome of the provincial elections in January. 

 

                So they're making good progress.  They still have some challenges ahead of them.

 

                Q     And do you think in addition to training Iraqi (forces ?) it would -- I mean, is rebuilding infrastructure a part of that equation, is also (why ?)?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, at this point, the Iraqis are responsible for rebuilding their infrastructure.  And I think they're partnering with some Western companies, Western governments in that respect.  But that's fundamentally an Iraqi responsibility at this point.

 

                Q     Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.

 

                SEC. GATES:  My pleasure.

 

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