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Media Availability with Secretary Gates en route to Lima, Peru

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
April 13, 2010
                SEC. GATES: This is a regional trip. I had intended to start with Brazil and sign the defense cooperation agreement there. Obviously, because President Lula came to Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit and brought his defense minister with him, I canceled that part of the trip to meet with the Brazilian minister yesterday afternoon. 
                Signing the defense cooperation agreement, which was to have been the highlight of my visit to Brazil, is clearly an important step forward in our bilateral relationship, our military-to-military relationship with Brazil.
                The visits to Peru and Colombia are basically to recognize what's already been achieved in the relationship and explore opportunities for further cooperation. One of the aspects of this that we very much support and are prepared to facilitate is the growing regional cooperation that's going on among these different countries, Peru and Colombia -- and, I might say, Mexico as well. And so we have Colombia doing training for Peruvians and for Mexicans.
                And I think this kind of cooperation is very important. They face similar kinds of problems with insurgents and narcotics and crime. And so figuring out how we can further help them in their own efforts and also in their cooperation with one another is an important opportunity. 
                Also, frankly, want to highlight the successes that Colombia has enjoyed over the past several years, and particularly under President Uribe: the success of Plan Colombia and the lessons learned in Colombia that it is now sharing with some of its neighbors and with others. Uribe, in my view, is a great hero and has been an enormously successful president of Colombia. And the key also will be to consolidate the achievements and particularly our partnership on an enduring basis so that -- so that this relationship continues to thrive and grow after President Uribe leaves office.
                And then, finally, the meetings in Barbados. Again, a key element of this is really the regional cooperation among the seven Caribbean islands' governments and the regional security arrangements that they have working together, particularly on counternarcotics, but also crime, which has become a real problem in several of the islands. 
                And we have -- we have about $45 million in assistance that we're going to be able to provide during FY '10. The president last year at the summit in April promised 30 million (dollars). We found another 15 million (dollars). And about a third of that money will be used to help their -- enhance their regional security arrangements, particularly communications and boats for maritime interdiction. 
                So really an opportunity to encourage what we see as some very positive trends going on, both in South America and in the Caribbean. 
                Q     We've now heard this morning that operations at Manas might be suspended, again this morning. What is the latest update on that? And what alternatives have you planned, if that base were to close? 
                SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, we -- I haven't heard that. So I don't know whether that's true or not. 
                We looked at a lot of alternatives last year when we were negotiating the new base arrangements. And obviously creating the Northern Distribution Network has been very important. We've now delivered over 10,000 containers by the Northern Distribution Network, which is a huge accomplishment. 
                We looked at -- there are other alternatives. I don't want to get into the details. But there are -- there are other approaches that we can use and facilities that we can use. They are more expensive and would be logistically more challenging than Manas. 
                Everything that I've been able to see or read suggests that there's a willingness to leave Manas open and to continue allowing our use of it in terms -- along the lines of the terms of the agreement. 
                Q     (Inaudible) -- affected operations in Afghanistan so far? 
                SEC. GATES: Not yet, no. 
                Q     Sir, Bryan Bender with The Boston Globe. Thanks for having us. 
                You mentioned Colombia and lessons there, their success story. Can you talk a little bit about what lessons you think would apply outside of the region and particularly in Afghanistan? 
                I know the U.S. has helped to foster at least some exchanges there maybe on tactics as opposed to sort of an overall strategy. 
                SEC. GATES: Sure. And in fact, the Colombians are working on sending a contingent to Afghanistan. They have clearly learned some very important lessons, in terms of counterinsurgency and how you -- how you deal with -- how you have a broad civilian-military approach to dealing with security issues. 
                And it kind of goes back to the broader comments that I was making, which is the other aspect of our assistance. This is really about more than just military-to-military relationships in these countries. 
                The -- we also want to work with them, in terms of addressing some of the root causes of these problems. And that obviously is the civilian component of our own strategy, with our embassies and AID [Agency for International Development]. But it's that piece of it that I think the Colombians have learned, over the last several years, and where they bring really unusual experience. 
                Q     Mr. Secretary, on Latin America in general, there have been a lot of criticisms the U.S. hasn't -- it's been, you know, kind of distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan; it hasn't been paying as much attention as perhaps it needed to in Latin America; and countries like, you know, China or Iran have boosted their relationships to the region. What would you say to that?
                SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, the president made a trip to the Caribbean just three months after he was inaugurated. I'd say that's a pretty high priority, given the list of countries that wanted him to visit around the world. Secretary Clinton made a major trip here last -- to the region last year. I'm coming down now.
                I think that there's actually been a fair amount of attention and priority given to it. And just like the president finding the 30 million (dollars) in funds last year very early in the administration. So I think we've been attentive.
                Q    Mr. Secretary, as you know, the investigation now in Afghanistan into what happened in Gardez seems to have accelerated a bit. What is your understanding about who's leading the investigation, I mean what rank of officer, and what indications there may be about the claims that Special Operations troops killed people and dug the bullets out of the bodies trying to cover it up? What is your level of concern about that, and your understanding of what may have taken place?
                SEC. GATES: Well, I don't know the particulars. I've been told that the allegations of a cover-up are questionable, but I just don't know the facts. And the investigation is clearly going on under ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] auspices, but also the Afghan government. So I think both are investigating it. 
                Q     (Inaudible)
                SEC. GATES: Not specifically.
                Q     (Inaudible) -- civilian casualties? There have been U.S. officers disciplined for force protection flaws, like Wanat and other places. There have not been officers disciplined for killing Afghan civilians. Why is that? And shouldn't that change? (Inaudible).
                SEC. GATES: Well, I think that it -- I think that it would depend entirely on the circumstances. And I think no one has done more to try and reduce civilian casualties and to make the protection of civilians in Afghanistan a higher priority than General McChrystal. 
                And I'm sure that you all are aware yourselves of some concerns, on the Hill and with some of our troops, about the rules of engagement, that maybe we're going too far. I don't believe that. General McChrystal doesn't believe that. But by the same token, until you know the precise circumstances of each of these cases, then I think you're not in a position to judge whether somebody needs to be held accountable. 
                You know, the outcome of the investigation, for example, in Gardez is -- if somebody needs to be held accountable for that or if something happened that shouldn't have happened, then I think appropriate actions will be taken. But the problem is, in all of these cases, completing these investigations often comes weeks or months after the event itself, and so there's a gap there until you can know whether there was -- whether there was any kind of culpability. 
                But I can't -- every time I talk to General McChrystal, he talks about this. His view is, the civilian-casualty question is a strategic question in Afghanistan. And I think that he thinks that is one of the greatest risks to the success of our strategy, and it's why he has been as aggressive as he has. I think it's -- I think it's the right policy.
                But let's also face the reality. We are in a war. And our adversaries, the Taliban, mingle with civilians. They use civilians. They purposely put civilians in Afghanistan in harm's way. And I think we'd better not forget that reality as well.
                Q     Follow-up on that? The Gardez incident involved Special Operations Forces. Some of the other civilian casualties have -- also of late have involved Special Operations Forces. Do -- does there need to be additional tactical directives for the Special Operations Forces to change their tactics, to put more care on civilian casualties with their operations?
                SEC. GATES: One of the things that I've done is, in response to a request from General McChrystal -- and actually it's General Petraeus's action, but I approved it -- is to ensure that all of the forces that we have in Afghanistan have a chain of command that go to General McChrystal. And so both with respect to the Marines and also Special Operations, they now report to General McChrystal. So I think this will help. I hope this will help.
                Q     A quick follow-up to that. The WikiLeaks folks put out, you know, that video last week. There's apparently another video of a(n) Afghanistan incident coming out. Does the -- does the appearance of these videos -- the appearance of these videos coming late reopens these investigations in the public's mind. Is there a case to be made that, when you have a high-profile incident of civilian casualties, that the Defense Department should early on release its own gun-sight videos, bomb videos, this kind of stuff to put more information out about controversial events?
                SEC. GATES: Well, I think the challenge that we face is getting all of the information. I mean, these people can put anything out they want and are never held accountable for it. There is no before and there is no after: It's only the present. 
                And, you know, it's like -- it's a little bit like embeds, in the respect that I've always believed embedding was a great idea, in part because it allows journalists to see what our men and women in uniform do every day, to see these situations that they face where they have to make these hard calls. 
                But the reality is, you end up looking at the war through a soda straw. And if the platoon you're with had a good day, then the war's going well, and if they had a bad day, the war's going badly. And that's the problem with these videos, is, you're looking at a situation through a soda straw and you have no context or perspective. And for us to put that together, to try and recreate all of that, is a challenge. 
                And so I just think that, you know, we take these things seriously. I've repeated what I said about General McChrystal's attitude toward it and his very profound belief that the civilian casualties are critical in hampering our efforts in Afghanistan.
                And we will -- and we investigate every single one of these incidents, not only to determine whether there's accountability or what actually happened, but also to see if there are some lessons to be learned in terms of how to avoid it the next time around.
                Q    (Inaudible) --
                STAFF: Okay. Hold on. Hold on. We're on our way to South America. Does anybody have any other questions on our trip to South America?
                Q     Yes. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela, he said that the U.S. is negotiating -- were negotiating two military agreements with Latin American countries, the one with Brazil that you signed yesterday; the other one could be Peru. That's why we're going over there, perhaps looking for an alternative for the Manta base?
                SEC. GATES: We have no agreements to be signed at Peru.
                Q    Why Peru? I mean, you could go to any country and deepen your commitment to the region. Why Peru versus Argentina or --
                SEC. GATES: Well, I think first of all, because Peru is engaged with Colombia and others in these -- in this regional effort, but also, frankly, because Peru has been a constructive influence, in our view, in South America in terms of trying to counter some of the propaganda and other things from Venezuela, and in terms of trying to represent what we're trying to do in a straightforward manner. You know, they have their own interests, but the reality is Peru has been a good friend to the United States. And that's a good reason to go.
                Q     Is there any take-away you want to get from the trip?
                SEC. GATES: I think the big take-away, I mean the big deliverable, if you will, would have been DCA [Defense Cooperative Agreement] with Brazil. But I think that there are some opportunities to expand our bilateral arrangements in terms of military-to military, in terms of -- some of these -- several of these militaries, like the Peruvians, are trying to restructure themselves and be more focused on their internal challenges and figuring out a way -- there are ways we can help them in this respect. 
                Another area where Colombia has learned a lot of lessons has been in the human rights arena, and so we do a lot of training in that, so we may be able to help the Peruvians. There are a lot of allegations against the Peruvians that are often used -- these allegations are often used as a political weapon to attack the military. And so they can help protect themselves with the kind of training that we offer. And so I think there are some specific areas that we'll talk about where I think we can do more together.
                Q     This is a follow-up. When you talk about human rights, and you've got the media flurry of the bus incident, you have the video, what kind of challenge does that put on you personally ?
                SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, in the civilian casualty incidents, I have not -- I don't recall a single -- in Afghanistan, I don't recall a single one where anybody has alleged the United States went in and did this on purpose. These are -- where there have been civilian casualties, they have been tragic incidents or places where they have been placed in harm's way by the Taliban or where there was some kind of a misunderstanding. So I think it's a completely different situation.
                STAFF: Okay. Last one here.
                Q     I'll ask you to put on your analyst hat for a second. Look at these deepened ties that Iran seems to have with Venezuela, Bolivia, maybe Ecuador. Is that just simply these are nations that are hostile to the U.S., so therefore they're sort of buddies? Or do you see something deeper there in terms of Iran wanting to have more influence, more say, more activity in our hemisphere?
                SEC. GATES: I think that -- I think it makes for interesting public relations on the part of the Iranians, the Venezuelans. These guys both have serious -- these -- both of these countries have serious internal problems. Both of them have serious economic problems. Both of them have huge unemployment rates, especially among young people. To a certain extent, I think there is an element of distracting their own populations from the -- from the difficulties that they have by strutting around, trying to strut around the world stage.
                I don't -- I certainly don't see Venezuela at this point as a military challenge or threat. 
                Q     What about a terrorism threat? Iran has a lot of proxies.
                SEC. GATES: Yeah, but we haven't -- I don't -- I haven't seen much evidence of that in Latin America, in terms of Iran having proxies or terrorist proxies. You know, I think it was -- I think that Hezbollah was involved in the terrorist act in -- in Argentina years ago against the Israelis -- or against the synagogue. And -- but I don't see that as being a big part of the agenda.
                Q     Mr. Secretary, this morning an Iranian official from the nuclear agency said they're only a couple of months from joining the nuclear club. Do you believe that? What's your latest assessment?
                SEC. GATES: I don't believe it.
                Q     And just, will you share any sort of a timetable in terms of -- (inaudible)?
                SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- I think that most estimates that I've seen, you know, haven't changed since the last time we talked about it -- (laughs) -- which is, probably at least a year and maybe more.
                Q     (Inaudible) -- energy institute -- (inaudible) -- foreign policy or national security, is lithium and the importance of lithium to electric batteries, to electric cars, and the fact that lithium is so prevalent in Latin America, does that make the kind of energy question that we deal with in the Middle East potentially extend more heavily to Latin America as well?
                SEC. GATES: I don't -- I don't think so at this point. To be honest, you're way beyond my level of competence on a question like that. (Laughs.) 
                STAFF: Okay --
                Q     (Inaudible) -- on Venezuela? Just on -- just on the arms sales in Venezuela. They've been ramping up their purchases quite a bit lately. What do you see -- why do you think they're doing that? I mean, they're spending a lot of money on Russian arms -- (inaudible.)
                SEC. GATES: Well, they're -- first of all, they're getting very good terms from the Russians. The Russians are actually loaning them a fair amount of the money to buy the weapons they're buying. And my guess is that Venezuela could much better spend the money taking care of its own people.
                STAFF: Okay. Thank you.
                Q     Thanks a lot.
                Q     Thank you, Secretary.

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