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Press Conference with Secretary Gates Following NATO Ministerial Meetings in Brussels, Belgium

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
June 12, 2009

                SEC. GATES:  (In progress) -- earlier this week, but I want to once again recognize his strong, principled and innovative leadership.  Even while heading the alliance during its largest operation ever, he has initiated a number of reforms -- (inaudible).  In order for NATO to remain the most successful military alliance in history, we must continue to evolve to meet the security challenges of the 21st century. 

 

                Let me also thank General John Craddock, NATO Supreme Allied Commander.  Later this month, I'll have a chance to pay tribute to him as he leaves his post in Europe.  However, at this his last ministerial meeting, it was important to note the valuable contributions he has made to this alliance over the last three years.

 

                We just concluded a very successful ministerial, my ninth, I would say the most successful and productive of all, and dealt with a wide range of NATO missions.  I'm pleased that we've agreed to establish a long-term counter-piracy operation and to reduce our presence in Kosovo to a deterrent level.

 

                But as the secretary general just made clear, our main focus was Afghanistan, a mission whose importance to the security of Europe and the United States must not be underestimated.  As we have seen from attacks all over the globe over the past eight years, the danger posed by instability in the region reaches far beyond the borders of Afghanistan or Pakistan.  It is critical that we get this right and quickly establish positive momentum.  I'm confident we will do just that.  The alliance has a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, one that will bolster and unify our military and civilian capabilities.

               

                With that in mind, this week for the first time -- again, as Jaap just described -- we decided to deploy NATO AWACS for use in Afghanistan; we stood up a new, unified NATO training mission for the Afghan National Security Forces; and we agreed in principle to establish a new command structure. 

 

                We also now have a new commander to lead these efforts.  This morning I introduced General Stan McChrystal to the ministers.  We all look forward to working with him as he brings fresh thinking and unparalleled energy and determination to Kabul.  His extensive counterinsurgency experience and expertise will help us forge a much more comprehensive approach to the war. 

 

                I made a statement during the session with the troop-contributing nations about civilian casualties.  I said, and I quote, "We know the Taliban target innocent civilian Afghans, use them as shields, mingle with them, and lie about their actions.  That said, every civilian casualty, however caused, is a defeat for us and a setback for the Afghan government."

 

                We need to make more changes in the way we conduct our operations to overcome what I believe is one of our greatest strategic vulnerabilties in Afghanistan; that is, civilian casualties.  We can only succeed if Afghans believe we are their friends, their partners and, with Afghan forces, their protectors. 

 

                We must address this problem on a ISAF-wide basis, in no small part because 43 percent of air support missions are flown in support of non-U.S. forces.  I have told General McChrystal that addressing this challenge must be one of his highest priorities.  He is obviously in complete agreement.  All you have to do is look at his congressional testimony during his confirmation to see that.  And he is already working on new ways to improve our operations and better protect the Afghan people. 

 

                While this will undoubtedly be a long and difficult fight, we can achieve what I believe to be our primary goal, a free Afghan people who do not provide a safe haven for al Qaeda, reject the rule of the Taliban, and support the legitimate government that they elected and in which they have a stake.  To accomplish all of this will take continued commitment of the alliance and of our partners, as well as the courage of our men and women in uniform. 

 

                Take a handful of questions.

 

                Q     (Name inaudible) -- from Geo Television Pakistan.  Can you tell us what sort of objections Pakistan is having with Afghan government regarding Baluchistan?  And foreign minister yesterday said that the -- (inaudible) -- the allied forces has to address and review after seven years of ISAF (inspection ?).  Are there any -- (inaudible) -- of Pakistani objections, or did you take into account regarding ISAF (inspections ?)?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I've been in these meetings for the last two days, so I don't know what statements may have been made.  I do know that there is broad recognition that the evolving cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the two of them and ISAF, is regarded by all the ministers as a very positive development.  We think there's been a lot of a progress in this respect in the last few months, and we look forward to continuing.

 

                Q     (Name inaudible) -- the Czech Republic.  Mr. Secretary, can you elaborate on the expected level of combat in Afghanistan this season, this summer? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think we've been pretty forthright that as more ISAF troops, as more American troops go into Afghanistan and into places such as Helmand, where there has not been an Afghan government or security forces or ISAF presence in the past, or a number of years, that the fighting will almost certainly get heavier.

 

                And so I think the realistic expectation of most people is that we expect a heavy fighting season ahead.  But I think there are some real opportunities to make important gains. 

 

                Q     Andrew Gray from Reuters. 

 

                Mr. Secretary, soon the United States will have twice as many troops, in Afghanistan, as the rest of NATO put together.  You know, three American generals are now in more senior positions, if you like, in the NATO structure in Afghanistan. 

 

                With that in mind, isn't this really now a U.S.-dominated operation?  And why persist with the NATO structure and proceed with this new NATO structure, when America has the overwhelming majority of forces and influence in Afghanistan? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, we certainly have a majority.  But I would not minimize the importance of 32,000 NATO and partnering troops, in Afghanistan, and the role that they and their civilians and their development people are playing in virtually every part of the country. 

 

                They're playing an increasingly important role in the police training.  They are doing a lot in the area of mentoring.  They provide something on the order of, at this point, I think, 43 OMLTs.  So I think that our partners and our NATO allies are making a tremendous contribution in this fight. 

 

                I also think it's important; from the stand point of the Afghan government, there were -- in the troop contributing nations meeting this morning, there were 43 representatives.  This is 43 institutions and governments that are allied, with the Afghan government, in trying to overcome the threat posed by the Taliban and other violent extremists: the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, al Qaeda and so on. 

 

                So I think the importance, in terms of the deep involvement of the U.N., with their special representative in Kabul, Ambassador Kai Eide, along with the representatives of our partners, the overall impact is much greater, in my opinion, than the arithmetic. 

 

                The sum, as they say, is greater than -- the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  And I for one and I know that I've certainly not been silent about wanting more help, from other troop contributing nations, both civilian and military.  But that is not to say that the contribution that's already being made is huge. 

 

                And I think the fact that, you know, just over the last year or so, the number of non-U.S. forces has increased by a third, from about 22,000 to about 32,000.  So I think people are looking for ways to step up their contribution. 

 

                Q     Jim Neuger from Bloomberg.  What, if any, commitments did you get from the allies to keep their election-support troops in Afghanistan after the election?  And were you satisfied with these forces?

 

                SEC. GATES:  We really didn't talk about that.  To be honest, when you have representatives from 43 entities that all want to speak in two hours and 40 minutes, there's not a lot of opportunity for a back-and-forth dialogue. 

 

                I think we've made our hopes and wishes clear.  I think some of our allies have indicated that they're prepared to do that.  A number of the troop-contributing nations indicated this morning that they were increasing either their military or civilian presence, in some cases both. 

 

                Again, the numbers may not necessarily be large, especially from some of the smaller countries, but, proportional to their size, it's an important commitment on their part, and we welcome it.  And they did not indicate that this presence was something that would go away after the election.

 

                Q     Dan De Luce, Agence France-Presse.  On the question of civilian casualties, this latest incident in the Farah province, are you satisfied with how the communications aspect of it was handled, the way that -- the different messages and different accounts given by the U.S. military itself over a period of time?  Would you like to see these kinds of incidents handled differently in the way the U.S. and the coalition explains what's happened and what went wrong?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think the only thing that I would say on that is that I think we can do better.

 

                Q     (Name and affiliation inaudible).  Secretary, as I understand it, Russia -- relations with Russia were absent from your discussion -- from the discussion during the discussions about Afghanistan.  Do you continue to consider any role Russia -- (off mike) -- your efforts in Afghanistan?  And what do your -- what do you think about the future relations with Russia in next months?  They were very harmed by the Georgian war.  What do you consider your relationship with Georgia, too?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think you squeezed about four questions in there.  First of all, I think that Russia rightfully is concerned about particularly the narcotics coming out of Afghanistan into Russia.  I think Russia also is concerned about the dangers the -- posed by gains by the violent extremists and terrorists for its own security. 

 

                And so I think that Russia has started to make some contributions already, and they are welcome.  And clearly, whatever's -- there's obviously a history there with respect to Afghanistan and the Afghan government, but I think our view would be that help that is welcomed by the Afghan government would be -- would be welcomed by us.

 

                And let me just say, on the larger relationship with Russia, I think that beginning with the meeting, the early meeting between the president and President Medvedev in London, the meeting between Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Clinton, and the prospective summit meeting with -- when the president travels to Moscow next month, indicates that there's a lot of opportunity for progress in this relationship.  But I would say it needs to be reciprocal, in terms of each side doing things to reset the relationship.  And I would say at this point, so far so good.

 

                Q     (Name and affiliation inaudible) -- about this issue with Russian relations.  You are rather optimistic this week about the possibility that the anti-missile shield would be installed-- (off mike) -- in Russia.  But the Russians have been, I mean, skeptical about this possibility.  So do you still see a good chance about this?  And did you touch about this issue at all in the meeting today?  Thanks.

 

                SEC. GATES:  I'm the eternal optimist.  I think that -- I think we have a common concern with respect to the development of Iran's missile capabilities and what appears to be Iran's programs to develop nuclear weapons.  And based on the conversations that I have had going back over the past 18 months with first then-President Putin and then President Medvedev, I continue to believe that if we can find the right formula, that there is an opportunity for the United States and Russia to work together in addressing -- in addressing this problem.  And I certainly will do my part to pursue that.

 

                Q     (Name and affiliation inaudible.)  Today there is Iranian election.  How do you consider future risks between the United States and Iran?  And how do you think of the role that Iran could play in the -- (inaudible)?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think -- first of all, I think we are interested in seeing the policies that the Iranian government follows.

 

                And we would wait to see, no matter who was elected, we would wait to see what kind of policies are followed by that person.  So it's really less dependent on personalities than it is on the policies that the leaders follow. 

 

                Iran is playing a bit of a double game in Afghanistan.  They are an important trading partner for Afghanistan.  They profess to have warm relations with the Iranian, I mean, with the Afghan government.  At the same time, they're sending in what I would describe as a relatively modest level of weapons and capabilities that attack ISAF forces and coalition forces. 

 

                So I think that they're trying to do what they can to hurt us and to hurt our allies and partners, in Afghanistan, which also ends up hurting the Afghan people.  At the same time, officially they're trying to have a good relationship.  So I think, as I said, they're playing kind of a double game. 

 

                One more question. 

 

                Yeah. 

 

                Q     (Off mike.)  BBC.  (Off mike.)  Two questions. 

 

                First, a general question:  General Petraeus said a couple of days ago that insurgent attacks were at their highest level since 2001.  I'm just curious.  I mean, what would you say to -- what is the answer to why should one be optimistic that events can be turned round, in the next couple of years now? 

 

                And the second question:  About the civilian casualties, to what extent are you concerned that -- after all, NATO and U.S. soldiers rely on airpower when things get sticky for them.  To what extent will any attempt to minimize civilian casualties increase the risk to NATO forces? 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I think, with respect to the second question, we will do whatever is necessary to protect our and our allies' and partner nations' men and women in uniform. 

 

                That said, I think that one of the areas General McChrystal will be looking at is, how do we design our operations to minimize the chances of civilian casualties, through better intelligence, through more precise targeting of ground operations and so on that reduces the chances of having to call on airpower. 

 

                The truth of the matter is, I think, as we get more forces on the ground, in the country, my hope would be that the need for that would be reduced.  We've said all along we expected hot and heavy fighting this year. 

 

                We're going into areas that have not been touched before.  The Taliban have each year, for the last three years at least; each year there has been a higher level of violence.  So it's not surprising that this year, it's higher than it was last year and the year before that. 

 

                But I think that with the additional forces and all the other things that we're doing, and that the Afghan government is doing, I think, we have a chance to turn the tide of that momentum, during the course of the next year. 

 

                Thank you all very much. 

 

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