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DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Gen. Cartwright from the Pentagon

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright
August 13, 2009

         SEC. GATES:  Afternoon.  Before taking your questions, I want to share a few thoughts about where we are in Afghanistan.

 

         One week from now, the people of Afghanistan will go to the polls to elect a president and provincial councils.  The role of the Afghan and international military forces is to support an election administered and organized by the government of Afghanistan.  The goal is to provide a security environment as conducive as possible to holding a fair, credible election free from violence and intimidation.

 

         Due to some of the military operations that have taken place in the Helmand province and other places in the south, it looks like more Afghans will be able to vote than had been the case before the recent deployment of additional U.S. forces, and obviously that's an encouraging development.  In terms of the overall security situation in the country, my view and, I believe, the view of most of our military commanders, is that we are looking at a mixed picture.  In some parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban have clearly established a presence.  The operations under way now and those being considered for the coming months are designed to roll back the Taliban and establish a lasting security and government presence, a presence that can give the Afghan people confidence that they will be protected from intimidation and retribution.

 

             An absolutely critical factor in the success of this mission is reducing civilian casualties from military operations.  And I believe the rules of engagement changes that General McChrystal has put in place are making a real difference, though we still have more work to do in this area.  

 

         These military operations are but one component of a multi- faceted strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan announced by the president four-and-a-half months ago.  

 

         At this time, General McChrystal is assessing the security situation, in the context of the president's goals and strategy, and will submit his assessment, to us and to NATO, sometime between the Afghan election and early-September.  

 

         That assessment will not include specific recommendations or requests for more forces.  However we've made clear to General McChrystal that he is free to ask for what he needs, to complete the important mission that he has been given.  

 

         Though there's been a good deal of reporting recently, about what General McChrystal may ask for, I can tell you, it's premature to speculate on that.  Any future resource request will be considered separately and subsequent to his assessment of the security situation. 

 

         We'd be happy to take your questions.  

 

         Ann.  

 

         Q     A question for both of you, please.  

 

         How long do you think American combat forces will be fighting active war in Afghanistan?  

 

         SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, that's -- you know, in the intelligence business, we always used to categorize information in two ways: secrets and mysteries.  The secrets were things that were ultimately knowable.  Mysteries were those where there were too many variables to predict.  And I think that how long U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan is in that -- is in that area.  

 

         I think that we are certainly hoping to see progress within a year, in terms of the new -- the president's new strategy and General McChrystal's new strategy and tactics.  And certainly it would be our hope that, assuming that we are moving in the right direction, that we would see a situation, as we have seen in Iraq, over the past two-and- a-half years, where more and more of the security responsibility will flow from international security forces to Afghan security forces.  

 

         I think that we all see -- we and our allies, as well as the Afghans, see a significant pacing factor here to be the speed with which we can accelerate the growth of the Afghan National Army and Police.  

 

        And we have a lot of money in the budget to do that for fiscal year '10.  And so I think that, you know, it's just not possible to predict specific periods of time when you're in a conflict like this, where the enemy has a vote and where there are so many variables.  But I think -- as I've said from the very beginning, I think that we need to be in a position to be able to show progress within a year.

 

         But being in a position where we could completely be where we are in Iraq depends a lot on the political environment inside Afghanistan and also on the Afghan national security forces.

 

         General.  

 

         GEN. CARTWRIGHT:  Now I'll stick with the mystery construct, but things that I would look for that would tell us that we're moving in the right direction, to the end of the significant engagements part of this and more into the holding side of this, would be when we can start to turn over certain areas and responsibilities to either the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police for security.  When that security is in the equal interests of us and the people there, and they acknowledge it and they contribute to it, they help us maintain the security.  When you start to see that attitude change, then you start to have a sense that things are going to move in a direction that would be towards the end of the violence side of this equation, which is what I think you're asking about, and then more towards the stability, the holding and the building side of the equation.

 

         Q     But clearly what you're hoping to achieve in Afghanistan -- rebuilding institutions, increasing the size of the forces, the economy -- is going to take many years.  Incoming top British General David Richards says British troops will be committed there for 30 to 40 years.  That sound about right?

 

         SEC. GATES:  No, I don't agree with that.  And first of all, I think you have to differentiate between institution-building and economic development, on the one hand, and defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda on the other.  And I think that the one -- the latter can be accomplished in a -- from -- with all of the considerations that I just described, in a few years.  

 

         The larger part of it, economic development and institution- building, probably is a decades-long enterprise in a country has been through 30 years of war and has as high an illiteracy rate as Afghanistan does and low level of economic development.  So that is a long-term prospect, but it's also one of those areas where virtually all of our international partners and nongovernmental organizations are committed to that side of the equation for an indefinite of period of time.  But that's what we do all over the world in developing countries.  And so that is a long-term prospect.  

 

        But in terms of the security situation, I think you're looking at a much shorter time frame.

 

         Q     So it's several years to get stable security in the country, you think?

 

         SEC. GATES:  No, I said it's unpredictable.  I said perhaps in a few years.  But I think we have to show progress over the course of the next year.

 

         Q     Well, General Cartwright, first, can you give us an update on the current operation in Helmand province?  Is it accomplishing what you set out to do?  Will it achieve better security or the desired security in advance of the election?

 

         And for the secretary, is this the desired timeline for this kind of operation, or couldn't something along the same lines have been done sooner without just days to spare before the election?

 

         GEN. CARTWRIGHT:  I think, on the first count, with the work that's going on in Helmand, we're seeing positive signs.  I think the commanders believe that they are making progress. 

 

         What's the end state?  If the election is the timeline that we're looking at, the metric is, are more people able to come out and avail themselves of the democratic process of voting?  

 

         Yes, that looks like it's going to be the case, all the indications are.  

 

         Are we stable there?  Do we -- have we obtained all of the objectives we intend to obtain in Helmand?  Not yet.  We've got a lot of work to do there.  

 

         And my sense is -- back to the original question -- you know, that's probably going to take us some time.  But we have -- certainly, I think, from the standpoint of the Marines in Helmand and now the Strykers, as they start to roll in -- have established a situation and an environment where the elections are going to be better off than they were before.  

 

         SEC. GATES:  I think the answer to your second -- the second part of your question's pretty straightforward.  The forces weren't available to send in until fairly recently.  We got them in there as fast as we could. 

 

         Q     A budget question for you, just to switch gears for a second.  Congress is away for the recess, and you can keep building your case for budget cuts -- your budget cuts.  One of the more vexing issues is the second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, that the House wants to build a second engine and the Senate does not. 

 

         Couple weeks ago you won a victory in the Senate when they stripped out money, but that very week with the program manager said that Pratt & Whitney's engine proposal has gone up like 24 percent in -- for one year, a fairly significant cost growth.  I want to ask you, does that kind of cost growth undercut your case for keeping one producer of the engine for the Pentagon's largest weapons program?

 

         SEC. GATES:  First of all -- and General Cartwright probably has more experience with these things than I do -- but there is always cost growth associated with a developmental aircraft.  And it was true of the F-22.  It's true of the F-35.

 

        It's one of the -- and there are often development problems.  

 

        It's one of the reasons we have over $400 million -- over $4 billion in the FY '10 budget to reduce the program risk, to allow for more engineers, more testing time, more airframes for testing.  And obviously the engines are part of this.  

 

        We think that fixing the problems that we've encountered, the challenges that we face, with the engine, is something that's quite manageable, doable.  And we don't think it's the best use of our money to fund a second engine.  

 

         (Cross talk.)  

 

         GEN. CARTWRIGHT:  I mean, there's more than one way to manage risk.  And dual -- two engines might be one.  But the path that we're on is to manage it both with technical expertise, making sure that we're working off any of the issues that we see technically, that might be risk, and then from the standpoint of the larger decision that we made here, there were a lot of reasons, beyond management of risk, why we went to the single engine.  And they still stand valid.  

 

         Q     On the cost issue though, I mean, are you in favor of fixed-price contracts for this going forward, when they start producing these things, so that the taxpayer doesn't get nailed with cost overruns?  

 

         SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, that's something we would have to look at.  I think once the production begins, that's clearly -- the Congress clearly likes that idea.  And I'm certainly open to it.  But I think we have to -- let's get through the development part of the program first.  

 

         Q     Mr. Secretary, you have expressed reluctance to send more troops to Afghanistan.  Are you being convinced to change your mind, perhaps in part through the Belgian meeting?  And is it a matter of either resourcing the mission or changing the mission at this point?  

 

         SEC. GATES:  Well, I have -- I have expressed my concern in the past, about the size of the footprint of international forces.  I think General McChrystal makes the very valid point that how those forces behave, toward the Afghans, is clearly an important element of that.  So far, I think that most Afghans see us as there to help them and see us as their partner.  I just worry that we don't know where -- what the size of the international presence, military presence, might be that would begin to change that.  And I think we need to move with considerable care in that respect and in close consultation with both our allies but especially with the Afghans and the Afghan government.  

 

        So I -- that is still a concern for me, but I would say also that the availability of forces is still a challenge as well.

 

         Q     General, what's your view of the resources versus -- (off mike)?

 

         GEN. CARTWRIGHT:  Right now we've got a new strategy.  We're resourcing that strategy.  The resources and the -- particularly the forces have not all flowed.  The infrastructure is not all in place for that strategy change and the allocations that we put against it. So as General McChrystal goes through his assessment, it is understanding that he is still receiving forces against that strategy. What he's assessing is, have I got it laid down right; is it appropriate, is that resource lay-down appropriate for the problem that's actually there, that I assessed -- "I" being General McChrystal -- and so he'll come back to us and talk more about is this -- am I going to be able to do the job I was given?  Again, as the secretary said, it's not really coming back and saying, "I want more forces." We're not closing that out, but it is a question of the strategy resource mix, and is it in fact executable as we go forward?  

 

         But again, remember that forces that are moving to the theater under this updated strategy aren't all there yet.  

 

         SEC. GATES:  Barbara.

 

         Q     Mr. Secretary, if you look at four-and-a-half months of the new regional Afghan-Pak strategy, one of the things we don't hear any of you talk about anymore at all, really, is the hunt for Osama bin Laden.  As you look at this regional strategy and you're so busy with this, administration-wide, to what extent has the hunt for bin Laden become less of a priority?  On a scale of one to 10, basically.  

 

         SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that we are still very interested in getting rid of the leadership of al Qaeda.  And I can tell you that the effort against al Qaeda, not just in Afghanistan but in other parts of Africa and the Middle East, goes on.  And -- but I think that our view -- my view is that what we need to do -- we -- I think we have done some real damage over time to the al Qaeda organization and leadership.  

 

        And I think they still have capabilities.  They are still the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world, with respect to this country and a lot of our allies.  So they remain a very high priority. By the same token, that doesn't mean that we can't resource the effort in Afghanistan either.  

 

         Q     Mr. Secretary, with respect though, I understand what you're saying about the leadership.  My question really goes to, so many Americans eight years later remain deeply interested.  And the president, while he was campaigning for office, talked about capturing or killing him.  

 

         So to what extent -- him in particular – can you tell Americans? Have you had any good leads in recent months?  Do you still -- does this administration still look for him every day?  Are you -- what's the priority on trying to get him?  

 

         SEC. GATES:  I would -- I would say that the United States and our allies and partners continue to have the hunt for al Qaeda very high on our priority list.  I'd just leave it at that.  

 

         Q     Sir, this trust agreement with Colombia, allowing U.S. anti-drug missions to operate from military bases there, has caused a lot of concern among Latin-American countries, among them U.S. allies. 

 

         So do you feel like this agreement is worth the political price? And what guarantees can you give that the U.S. will actually not deviate from its mission there, inside the Colombian border?  

 

         SEC. GATES:  Well, let me start and then ask General Cartwright to pitch in.  Virtually all of the counternarcotics efforts that we pursue, in Latin America, are in partnership with other countries. These are not unilateral actions on our part.  And we hope to continue these partnerships.  

 

         Clearly the need for reconnaissance, for being able to find laboratories and so on -- we bring some assets to this that our allies welcome.  And that's really what this is all about is, how do we work together and more effectively with our partners in the region, to go after these narcotics cartels?  

 

         GEN. CARTWRIGHT:  I mean, as you may know, this is talking about seven bases in particular.  And the intent here, what we're doing is going in first -- and we use these bases to provide capability to the Colombians.  It's going in and actually assessing the bases for safety and security, the ability to give us fuel, park, and weight-bearing of the runways, things like that.

 

         The intent, though, the strategic intent is, in fact, to be able to provide to the Colombians that what they need in order to continue to prosecute their efforts against the internal threats that they have.  This is a bilateral relationship with the Colombians.

 

         Q     So do you think that the criticisms or concerns expressed by Latin American allies, U.S. allies, are unfounded?

 

         GEN. CARTWRIGHT:  I think we need to do a better job of explaining to them what we're doing and making it as transparent as possible.  Because anybody's concerns are valid, and so if they have concerns we need to do a better job about describing what we're doing, to make sure that we allay those concerns to the best of our ability.

 

          Q     Since the spring, when the Swat Valley fighting began, Pakistan has responded and there's been more fighting with -- I mean, with Americans as well, on the border since the strike; intelligence sharing, all of that going on.  Pew came out with a report today on Pakistan public opinion that says only 9 percent of Pakistanis see the U.S. as a partner; 64 percent still see the U.S. as the enemy.  What -- how is that -- how do you react to that new statistic?  What do you think is DOD's role in reaching -- in changing that kind of public opinion?

 

         And personally, Mr. Secretary, do you see a need to go to Pakistan -- you haven't been there recently, or this year -- but you know, taking this to a level up -- all the way up to your office, personally?

 

         SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that, first of all, one of the reasons that the Pakistanis have concerns about us is that we walked away from them twice.  We walked away from them after the Soviets left Afghanistan, and we walked away from them through the 1990s because of the Pressler amendment.  And so, our military-to-military relations were significantly interrupted.  And so, I think that the Pakistanis probably -- and with some legitimacy -- question our -- how long are we prepared to stay there?  Is the only reason we're interested in working with the Pakistanis because of the war in Afghanistan?  Or do we value Pakistan as a partner and an ally independent of the war in Afghanistan?  

 

         The latter is the case.  And I think that the bills on the Hill, to provide multi-year economic assistance to Pakistan, manifest that. So I think it's going to take us some time to rebuild confidence, with the Pakistani people, that we are a long-term friend and ally of Pakistan.  

 

         By the same token, I think that the polls that are perhaps more meaningful in this context is the strong support that the Pakistani people seem to have given, to their government, in terms of the activities in western Pakistan, in the FATA and in the North-West Frontier Province.  

 

         And there, there seems to be, more than I think any of us would have expected six months ago, broad political support for what the Pakistani military is doing in the west.  

 

         And I think that this change of attitudes and the success of the Pakistani forces clearly serves our interest as well as it serves the interest of the Pakistanis.  And so my hope is that over time, we will be able to demonstrate, to the Pakistanis, that we are a reliable ally that they can count on for the long term.  

 

         As I look at my travel schedule, over the -- over the next six or eight months, one of the places that I am looking -- thinking about going is back to Pakistan, because it has been a while.  

 

         Admiral Mullen obviously has developed a good relationship with General Kayani.  And I think he's made something like a dozen or 13 visits to Pakistan, over the past 15 months.  But it probably is time for me to return.  

 

         Q     May I just follow, sir?  Are you satisfied, as far as Pakistan's nuclear program, that it does not go into the hands of terrorism?  Because there are some reports.  

 

         And also some Afghans are concerned about the present government of President Karzai, if you are happy and satisfied with his government.  Because they think that al Qaedas are still coming back and government is not doing much there, as far as their safety is concerned.   

 

         SEC. GATES:  The only thing I would say is that is what Admiral Mullen has testified to on a number of occasions, and that is that we are comfortable with the level of security in the Pakistani forces.

 

         GEN. CARTWRIGHT:  Yeah.

 

         Q     Back to the availability of forces to Afghanistan.  Clearly there's a dearth of forces, and you've called for a 22,000 increase in the Army.  But that will take some time.  Do you have the forces to give to General McChrystal in the short term, and say, "I need more into next year," and should the president agree with him?

 

         SEC. GATES:  Well, we haven't -- at -- as far as I know, people have not started to look into the availability of forces.  I would just say off the top of my head that until the more accelerated drawdown in Iraq begins after the elections there, that it will be a challenge for us, and particularly as we seek to increase the dwell time at home for our forces.  But it is something that I'm sure will be looked at, but it will depend really entirely on what he proposes.

 

         Q     Does dwell time come after providing enough forces for Afghanistan?

 

         SEC. GATES:  I think you have to balance these things.  

 

         Q     You mentioned when you left Iraq a few weeks ago that there was the potential to speed up the drawdown even further, bring another BCT out of Iraq before the end of this year.  Is that -- is it safe to assume that that's still on the table, despite an uptick in recent violence there?  

 

         And isn't it -- would that likely be done -- a brigade not going in and instead going to Afghanistan to fill the -- what seems like a continuing need there?

 

         SEC GATES:  Well, not necessarily, but I would say that -- we had a video conference with General Odierno earlier this week, and I think he's feeling pretty positive about the way things are going in Iraq.  

 

         So I would say that despite the uptick -- which is clearly one of the things that he made clear that is a positive development, is that the Shi'a clearly recognize that this is al Qaeda trying to restoke sectarian violence.  This is not the Sunnis coming after the Shi'a; this is al Qaeda.  And it's one of the reasons that the Shi'a have been as restrained as they have and not reacted.  And so I think, you know, I raised it as a possibility.  

 

        I think that's a decision, whether or not to do it, that he will make probably several months from now.

 

         Q     Back to the troops issue.  In your opening statement, you said that McChrystal's assessment will not include a request for more forces, but he's free to ask for what he needs.  So was he specifically told not to ask for more forces?  And if it is more forces that he needs, are you willing to put a cap on that number? 

 

         SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all -- and we'll both answer that -- General McChrystal has been told very directly by both the chairman and by me that we want him to ask for what he thinks he needs.  And I think you have to allow your commanders that freedom.  

 

         And then the chain of command -- General Petraeus, the Joint Chiefs, chairman and the vice chairman, myself -- will all look at that and decide what to recommend.  And so we're not talking about caps.  Where -- what we're waiting for is his assessment and then to see what options or courses of action he puts forward, independent of the assessment, as we move forward.  But as General Cartwright said, the reality is, he's still got another full brigade to come in - the 4th of the 82nd.  And so these forces are still flowing that already have been made available or approved by the president.  And so, you know, we need -- he needs some time and we need some time to see what the impact of all of that is.

 

         Q     (Off mike.)

 

         GEN. CARTWRIGHT:  I think the only other piece that I would add is that, as we have watched and you have watched what's going on in Afghanistan, the IED fight is pretty lethal.  And so that's one area that we're going to have to focus in on.  Whether it's an adjustment in our lay-down, in our tactics; whether it is additional resource, we're going to have to take a serious look at that, and we will have to do that soon.

 

         SEC. GATES:  Yeah.

 

         Q     Mr. Secretary, given what you said about the need to roll back to the Taliban, the push to roll back the Taliban, and General McChrystal's comments this week about needing to secure populations and possibly redeploying troops to urban centers as a result, is there some trade-off between taking the fight to the Taliban and protecting the population, particularly given the limited resources and the terrain? 

 

        SEC. GATES:  Well, my view is that if you deny the Taliban access to the people, you basically are starving what nourishes them.

 

        And the key -- and the key, as General Cartwright said at the very beginning of this conversation -- the key is the Afghans themselves becoming part of the security force.  And it's not just their security forces.  It is ordinary Afghans turning in Taliban who are planting IEDs or who are setting ambushes and people like this.

 

         We saw this happen in Iraq, and it's clear that when people begin to feel a sense of security, that then they begin to look to the long- term future and become the allies of their government and of the international forces there to help them.

 

         Q     In turn, does that mean that there may be greater attention to protecting people in population centers, rather than fighting the Taliban in particularly remote places?

 

         SEC. GATES:  I suspect that may be something that's addressed in the general's assessment.

 

         Q     Mr. Secretary, how do you assess the security meeting held yesterday in Damascus between U.S. military officials and the Syrian government?  What kind of results you are expecting and improvement you are expecting from the Syrian government?

 

         SEC. GATES:  Well, I haven't received a readout on the meeting, or heard anything about the results, but the reason they're there is that when foreign fighters cross the Syrian-Iraqi border they more often than not target American troops.  And so our expectation -- my expectation is that -- that Syrians need to do more in terms of stopping those foreign facilitators and foreign fighters.

 

         Q     Mr. Secretary, if I may ask two questions, first one on Afghanistan, do you see any evidence that al Qaeda is playing a role in the recent fighting?  I mean, is there any kind of coordination between al Qaeda and Taliban in the current battles with the U.S. troops?

 

         And second one is on Somalia.  Do you think the level of assistance given by the U.S. to the interim government is enough to defeat al-Shabab, or from your own assessment you need to send more assistance, technical support maybe, to see a change?

 

         SEC. GATES:  Well, with respect to the latter, I think, with Secretary Clinton just having been in Africa and in Kenya, I'm interested in hearing her evaluation based on what she has learned out there before I make any judgment about whether we ought to be doing --    recommend to the president that we do more to help the transitional government in Somalia.

 

        So I'm waiting for Secretary Clinton on that one.  

 

         I think that what we have seen in Afghanistan, over the past more than a year, is several different elements engaged in the fight against the government of Afghanistan.  Al Qaeda is one element.  The Haqqani network is another.  The Taliban is obviously a major element. And there have been some others as well: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his group.  

 

         These are kind of the major players, if you will.  And I think it's fair to say that they are mutually supportive and that they at times collaborate.  But we don't -- I don't -- I haven't seen any information that suggests that they are a unified fighting force or that they are following al Qaeda's direction.  

 

         They all have their own independent agenda but with, in their view, a common foe.  And so I think that clearly al Qaeda is in touch with these different elements.  And probably different elements help provide protection for al Qaeda.  But I don't see that they're sort of firm allies or have a common agenda.  

 

         (Cross talk.)  

 

         Q     Roughly how much of Afghanistan do you consider to be under Taliban control right now?  And how can you convince so many Afghans that it's safe to vote, when the Marines are just showing up in their village seven days or so before the election?  

 

         SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, it's a pretty big country.  And I think I would -- I would remind -- or just make the point that first of all, based on everything that I've heard, we are looking at an election in which there will perhaps be 13 or 1,400 more polling places than there were in 2004.  

 

        Several million more Afghans have registered to vote than in 2004. They're obviously holding an election in adverse circumstances.  But I think these considerations are important.  

 

         They have significant -- significantly larger number of both international and Afghan observers for these polling places.  There is a tiered security arrangement.  And so I think that the potential is there for a quite credible -- quite credible election, and in all parts of the country.  

 

         I mean, I think that General McChrystal's view would be that Kabul is reasonably calm right now.  There's more activity in both the west and in the north, but there -- there are -- there are individual provinces and districts where there has been an uptick in activity, but for the most part they've -- they're not too bad. 

 

         So the real issue, the challenge is in Regional Command South and Regional Command East.  And again, it differs from district to district in terms of what the security situation is.  But I think that -- I think that most of us here believe that there's ample opportunity for a quite credible election.  Okay.

 

         GEN. CARTWRIGHT:  I might just throw in -- 

 

         SEC. GATES:  Yes.  Please.

 

         GEN. CARTWRIGHT:  I mean, if you walk or move around the country, the other thing that you see now is, one, candidates making speeches, having rallies, posters all over the place, rallies absent the candidates and villages advocating one candidate or the other.  

 

         And so the openness of the activity right now is substantially different than anything we've seen in the past.  And that's just a judgment on their part that the security's sufficient that they're going to go out and do that, but it is also a reflection of their confidence in the security.  

 

         And it's not -- you know, it's not the same everywhere. Absolutely not.  But by and large, you're seeing so much activity out there that you would associate with a political campaign, a democratic election, it's really startling when you walk around and watch this.  

 

         Could that be interrupted by violence?  Sure.  But right now, it's very shocking -- at least, you know, having seen it before -- how much openness there is in this campaign. 

 

         SEC. GATES:  Okay.  Thank you all.  

 

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