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Press Availability with Secretary Gates En Route From Hawaii to Tokyo

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
October 20, 2009

            First, just a word or two about the trip in general, clearly, three stops after a change in command ceremony today in Honolulu, first stop in Japan and clearly the first Cabinet level meeting with the new government, looking forward to that being back.  It's been about two years since I was in Tokyo. 

 

                My message will be pretty much the same as the message I delivered two years ago.  We welcome the new government in Japan.  We look forward to working with it.  We appreciate their desire to review certain policies.  President Obama's administration has done the same thing.  But I would say that with respect, particularly to the Futenma replacement facility that, as I say, we welcome their review, but we think we need to progress with the agreement that was negotiated.  This has been in negotiation in the works for 15 years.  All of the elements of it are interlocking.  And so it is important to continue with it. 

 

                They're really, as far as we're concerned, are no alternatives to the arrangement that was negotiated.  We've looked at over the years at all these alternatives and they are either politically untenable or operationally unworkable, so we need to proceed with the agreement as negotiated.  And it's hard for me to believe that the Congress would support going forward in Guam without real progress with respect to the Futenma replacement facility. 

 

                So that will -- that will be a theme, certainly, of my visit to Tokyo as we look for ways to strengthen our cooperation with this new government.  As I say, I'm looking forward to the visit.  I think there's some real opportunities going forward for further cooperation and partnership with one of our strongest allies.

 

                In Korea, the main theme will be the annual security consultative meeting.  We will review progress toward the transfer of operational control in April 2012.  I'm very pleased with the progress that's being made on both sides.  I'm very optimistic.  And then in Bratislava, obviously, the main theme there will be Afghanistan.  I suspect that Afghanistan will come up in Tokyo and Seoul as well.  And there are obviously a large number of needs in Afghanistan and we'll be prepared to offer suggestions for these countries in terms of economic assistance and other ways in which they might be helpful if they were willing to do so.  But that's essentially a decision that has to be made by each of these governments and then, of course, in Bratislava, we'll be talking about General McChrystal's assessment and his recommendation.

 

                So why don't I stop there and take your questions.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)  Security standpoint, is that something that will be viable from your perspective -- (inaudible) --

 

                SEC. GATES:  Yeah.  If the constitutional processes in Afghanistan lead to a runoff election, my understanding is that virtually all of the countries that sent in additional forces to help with election security, have kept those forces in place and I think we and they would be able to provide security along with the Afghan forces for such a runoff should that prove to be necessary. 

 

                I think the key consideration before us at this point is actually less security than with the passage of time, the weather.  And so getting something done before winter sets in will clearly be very important.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)  How would the possibility of a runoff affect the Obama administration's deliberations over our troops?  Could you make that decision --(inaudible) --

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think as I say, the weather becomes a limiting factor in terms of a runoff.  The reality is, even though the president has some further significant decisions in front of him, we already have 68,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan and almost 40,000 troops from other countries.  They're not all just staying in their tents while we wait the outcome of the election.  They're out doing operations.  They have a mission.  And so this is an ongoing process it seems to me.  Whether -- I read in the paper since we left Washington that there had been some comments by Robert Gibbs and by Rahm that we're getting close to the decision phase on Afghanistan.  And so I think, I think we're looking at the juxtaposition of these two things during the next very few weeks.  But we're not just going to sit on our hands waiting for the outcome of this election and for the emergence of a government in Kabul.

 

                We have operations underway and we will continue to conduct those operations.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)  Just to update us, where are you now on the decision to sending more troops in  -- (inaudible) -- and my understanding of what Gibbs and Rahm said was that -- (inaudible) -- decision on strategy -- would not be made until the government in Kabul can be stabilized. In other words, whether we know there will be a runoff or not.

 

                SEC. GATES:  My view is that whatever emerges in Kabul is going to be an evolutionary process.  I indicated, I've indicated on a number of occasions after the election in August that the outcome of the election and the problems with the election have complicated the situation for us, but the reality is, it's not going to get simple, it's not going to be complicated one day and simple the next.  I think that we will have to do is we and our international partners work with the Afghan government in building legitimacy and helping them tackle the problem of corruption.  But I see this as a process, not something that's going to happen all of a sudden where one day you have a big problem and the next day you don't have any problem.

 

                I think we're going to have to work with this going forward and I believe the president will have to make his decisions in the context of that evolutionary process.

 

                Q     (Off mike.) Do you think the runoff is -- (inaudible) --

               

                SEC. GATES:  I'm no expert on Afghan constitutional theory.  One theory that I've heard is that were there to be an agreement between President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Abdullah did not run in the runoff, that there would not be -- there would be no need for a runoff under those circumstances, but this is all internal Afghan politics at this point, and I think they basically have to sort it through themselves.

 

                Q     (Off mike.) 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, I think that we've had a very deliberative process.  We've looked at a lot of different aspects of the situation there.  A lot of the discussion has not been focused on troop levels, but on the civilian assistance, on dealing with the corruption problem, dealing with questions of legitimacy, better coordination of the assistance programs and on what kind of an approach we take with respect to reintegration of the Taliban.

 

                So there have been a lot of subjects reviewed in this, partly as a result of the situation that General McChrystal found and reported on in his assessment that represented a more challenging situation in Afghanistan than we thought we faced when the president made his decisions in late March, and then also, obviously, the complications associated with the elections. 

 

                So I think it has been a thorough process, and I think we are now moving to the point where the president will begin to address some specific options and then make his decision.  I mean the truth is there are also some realities that affect the timetable here, for example, I'm going to be out of Washington all this week and so is Admiral Mullen in Asia.  I think Secretary Clinton is going to be gone several days next week.  So it's just a matter now of getting the time with the president when we can sort through these options and then tee them up for him to make a decision. 

 

                Q     (Off mike.) 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think we are beginning to see the civilians flow and the reality is as I've said before, the civilian aspect of this is a big force multiplier.  And so you don't need huge numbers of people if you have people who are experts and know exactly what needs to be done.  The key is that whatever, however many civilians there are, they cannot operate in any of these environments without security.  And so the security has to be established before they can begin to tackle the challenges of economic development and governance and rule of law and so on.

 

                So that's the condition, precedent, for the civilians to have the impact they need to have.

 

                Q     (Off mike.) consequence to U.S.-Japan alliance if the Japanese government cannot meet its agreement?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I don't want to speculate on any hypotheticals.  This is an agreement between our countries, between our governments and, frankly, I have every confidence that both sides will fulfill the commitments that they have made in this agreement. 

 

                Q     (Off mike.)  Economic options -- (inaudible) -- for more troops anymore?  -- (Inaudible) --

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I'm prepared to come with a full menu, but what I want to do, I'm not coming with a view to making any specific requests of either of these governments.  But they both have had a role in Afghanistan in the past, and I am prepared to discuss with them the areas that where I see additional assistance could be helpful and that's a full range of things.  And if they're more comfortable with assistance in areas such as helping with the sustainment of the Afghan National Army and police in financial terms, we're helping with economic development and so on; we're perfectly prepared to discuss those with them.  But it's their individual decision and I am not making any specific asks of either of these governments.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  That's correct. 

 

                Q     (Off mike.) 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, we -- the location of the airfield was settled as I understand that in substantial measure to address environmental concerns on the part of the Okinawans and the Japanese government and if there is -- as we've indicated that there could be some flexibility in terms of the location, but that's really a matter between the Okinawa government and the government of Japan and Tokyo.

 

                Q     (Off mike.) 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, I think the thing to remember is that General McChrystal's assessment and also his resource request is going up through the NATO chain of command as well as through our own chain of command.  The reality is this is an alliance issue and I think my view all along has been we ought to do this in a way that if General McChrystal has an additional set of needs, it should not be looked upon as exclusively the responsibility of the United States to respond.

 

                And so I think having a discussion of that and the fact that this is a continuing shared responsibility makes it entirely appropriate to have that conversation in Bratislava before decisions are made by the United States.  This is an alliance issue, and, frankly, since the NATO summit last spring, I have seen more energy and more commitment on behalf of both the military and civilian leadership in the alliance than I have seen in the previous two years that I was in this job.

 

                So my hope is and still recognizing some of the domestic political challenges that some of them face.  So my hope is that we can have a serious discussion about how we address how things have changed in Afghanistan since last spring and a way forward in which the alliance can share these responsibilities and work with the Afghan government to move the situation in a more positive direction.

 

                Q     What has changed since two years ago?  What do you see that's caused this change?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I'll be honest, I'm not entirely sure.   But I just have -- both Admiral Mullen and I have sensed it in our contacts with our counterparts and in meetings that we have had and telephone conversations, there seems to be and I would refer to you Prime Minister Brown's comments in London the other day.  There seems to be a renewed commitment that we have to do this and get this done right, and I think that's all to the good. 

 

                Q     (Off mike.) 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Actually, it's less a matter of the challenge of the military, both our and the Afghan security forces providing security for the election than it is having a weather situation where people just can't get to where they need to go to the ballot.  That's the biggest problem. 

 

                Q     (Off mike.) 

 

                SEC. GATES:  The one thing that is clear in all the polling and everything I've seen is, regardless of anything else, pretty consistently, fewer than ten percent of the Afghan people want to see a return of the Taliban.  So the key is:  How do we move forward in a way that takes advantage of that hostility to the Taliban and perhaps, in no small measure due to memories of what it was like when the Taliban ran the country, and do so with the Afghan people having confidence in the legitimacy of their government and not just the government in Kabul, but at the district and provincial levels as well.  And as I said earlier, I think that that is a process, it's not something that's going to happen overnight or in a very short period of time.  And we just have to work together with the Afghans to move in that direction.  But the fact that 90 percent of the Afghan people do not want the Taliban to return means that I think we have some tremendous opportunities there.  And I think the key is reversing the momentum on the Taliban and preventing them from controlling populated areas, areas of economic production, lines of communication and so on.

 

                So I think these things can move in parallel, obviously, it would be easier had the election come out in a different way and been conducted without the kind of irregularities that have been identified and if all had been clear-cut, begin early in September.  But we just have to work with the situation that we find as far as I'm concerned.

 

                Q     (Off mike.) 

 

                SEC. GATES:  As I've said, I'm prepared to discuss a broad range of needs in Afghanistan, but I think that's entirely up to the government of the Republic of Korea.  I'm not going to try and -- as I said earlier, I'm not going to make any asks of anybody on this trip.  But we do have a common interest in moving forward in Afghanistan.

 

                Q     (Off mike.) 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, first of all, I think the important thing is to recognize this is a contribution that the Japanese have made to the international community.  A number of countries benefit more from the refueling than the United States does.  And so I don't see the refueling as being a favor to the United States, but rather a contribution that the Japanese have made that is commensurate with its standing in the world as the second wealthiest country and one of the great powers.

 

                So it's clearly a sovereign decision on the part of the Japanese government and I'm sure we'll talk about it.  But I intend to talk about it in the form that I just described.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  It obviously serves a number of countries, but that's really up to the Japanese.  I will make sure they understand that it's a valuable contribution, but if they choose to make a contribution in a different way, then that's up to them. 

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  First of all, on missile defense, we have a very strong partnership with the Japanese already and we are looking at ways to continue to enhance that.  Similarly, my understanding is the South Koreans also are looking at ways to strengthen their missile defense in light of all the launches that the North has been carrying out.  So I think we will continue to pursue this with both governments, but we start with an already strong foundation with respect to missile defense in Japan. 

 

                What was the first part of your question?

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  When this became a problem a while back, we looked at some options and there are some alternatives. I have to confess that I haven't looked at those contingency plans recently, so I'm not really up to speed on what they are. 

 

                Q     (Off mike.) 

 

                SEC. GATES:  No.  No.  I think things are going very well and based on the steps that both sides have taken, I think that everything is very much on track for meeting the deadline and after I met with Korea's president in Washington a few months ago, there has been continued progress in areas such as Camp Humphreys and some of the other steps involved in this process.

 

                So I'm feeling quite confident that we will be able to meet the deadline.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I'm obviously encouraged by the Pakistani operations.  I think the terrorist attacks that have been launched inside Pakistan in recent days made clear the need to begin to deal with this problem and so we, obviously, are very supportive of what the Pakistanis are doing.  But it's very early yet, I think, the best I can tell the effort has only been underway for a few days.

 

                Q     Thanks.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Thank you all.

 

                Q     Thank you very much. 

              

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