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Media Roundtable with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from London, United Kingdom

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
June 10, 2010

                SEC. GATES:  I'm in your hands.  I have no opening statement. 

               

                MODERATOR:  Historically we try to alternate between our traveling press and the British press.  So let’s open the floor up, to one of our British guests?  Want to go?

 

                Q     Kim Senguptaof the Independent.  Can I ask you -- Mr. Fox yesterday -- Dr. Fox yesterday about at the press conference said it's highly unlikely that these forces would ever move from Helmand to Kandahar to take over from the Canadians.  The Canadians seem all set to move out next year.  The Dutch will be moving out of Uruzgan. If the British do not go into Helmand, who will do the backfill for them.

 

                SEC. GATES:  That's a problem we've been working on probably for the last six months.  And General McChrystal has been doing some contingency planning on this.  I would say that -- at least my recollection is that there has really -- I don't recall any serious discussion about moving British troops from Helmand into Uruzgan to take the place of the Canadians or the Dutch. 

 

                So the question is what other kinds of arrangements, using collation -- different coalition elements -- can be put in place to take their place.  The Australians made clear they don't want to take the lead and won't take the lead.  So General McChrystal has been working on that, and we don't have an answer yet.

 

                Q     You mentioned Uruzgan, what about Kandahar?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I don't -- as Dr. Fox said yesterday, I think most of the additional forces going in around Kandahar are going to be American forces.

 

                Q     Thomas Harding from the Daily Telegraph. 

 

                Secretary, the British are approaching about 300 casualties in Afghanistan now, the message that it's – we’re there to  still prevent terrorism from happening in  this country is quite a well troubling and perhaps a new message is being -- is required of why we need to remain in Afghanistan.  And do you see that the British getting comments made in the last few weeks -- the British, to you would stay the long term, maybe in Afghanistan alongside the Americans?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that -- I think there was general agreement yesterday in all of my meetings that all of us, for our publics, are going to have show by the end of the year that our strategy is on the right track and making some headway.  I don't think anyone has any illusions that we'll be done or that there will be big victories or something like that.  But I think General McChrystal is pretty confident that by the end of the year, he will be able to point to sufficient progress that validates the strategy and also justifies continuing to work at this.

 

                I think one of the important elements of the detailed review we undertook last fall really was to reaffirm that the reason that we are there is for our own security.  We are not there to build 21st century Afghanistan.  None of us will be alive that long.  But we are there because the failure to establish some sort of a stable government in Afghanistan that is a non-Taliban government will create further security problems for us.  This has perhaps been a less difficult challenge for the United States since we were attacked out of Afghanistan, and the American people haven't forgotten  that.  And we want to make sure we're never attacked again out of there. 

 

                So fundamentally that's why we're there.  And we have to do certain things in terms of development and support for the Afghans to ensure that a threat to us all doesn't emanate from there again, but  the priority reason we're there is for our own security. 

 

                Q     Follow up on that, when you say a stable government that is a non-Taliban government.  Do you rule out some sort of partnership or  coalition eventually with elements of the Taliban, or with -- do you say that won’t work?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that -- in fact, I said -- I think I said sometime last year that at this point the Taliban are a part of the political fabric of Afghanistan, and to adopt a strategy that basically says we're going to eliminate the Taliban I think is unrealistic.

 

                Now, what form reconciliation will ultimately take -- and the reality is we all believe that ultimately there has to be a political outcome here.  What form that will take is I think an open question.  Our view is, though, that any reconciliation must take place on the terms established by the Afghan government, which includes severing relations, any kind of relationship with al Qaeda, putting down their arms against the government and being able to operate with in the constitution of Afghanistan.

 

                MODERATOR:  Yes, sir.

 

                Q     Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian Newspaper here.  Are you satisfied with the level of recruitment and the discipline of the Afghan National Army and the police service and the rate of the training and recruitment of those soldiers and coupled with that, do you think the British have -- NATO spokesman recently said, the secretary general there -- concerned about the slow progress in training sufficient numbers and the trainers in NATO countries, and maybe the British could do more of the training stuff – run the combat route?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I would differentiate between the army and the police.  The truth of the matter is that since last November, both the Army and the police have exceeded their recruitment goals in terms of reaching the numbers that we are looking for by this fall.  In the case of the army, both attrition and retention are well within the numbers that we have anticipated.  So I would say that there is a good deal of satisfaction with the progress on the army and also on their performance.

 

                With respect to the police, although their recruitment is above -- or above, well above the goals that had been set, retention and attrition remain problems.  Recent pay increases have helped their -- the additional numbers will make a difference because part of the problem in both the police and the army is that while the numbers are growing, too often units are sent into battle, and there's no plans for them to rotate back home for a period of rest and recovery.  And so they're just in the fight indefinitely.  So in a way, the only way to get any R&R or the only way to get out of combat is to desert.

 

                And so tied -- the attrition rates and the retention rates are very much tied to getting enough numbers in the forces that they can have a regular rotational process that allows them to get home and see their families and so on periodically.

 

                The training we still -- there is still a shortfall, a NATO shortfall of about 450 trainers.  We are especially eager for more trainers.  And to tell you the truth, my view is that those allies and partners who are not prepared to commit combat forces or to increase the number of their combat forces should step up when it comes to trainers.  In this category I do not include the U.K.  I think that with 9500-plus troops and having been in the fight all along, Britain has done all that can be expected of it, and frankly I'd rather have the others who don't have anything like the combat commitment that the U.K. has to make up the short fall in trainers.

 

                I've tried to provide a bridging capability over a six- or seven-month period by sending a couple of Marines detachments and an Army unit to provide training, but I see this as a temporary bridge until the European trainers and other trainers can get there.

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, there's been an attack on a NATO convoy very close to Islamabad overnight.  I realize you're traveling and you won't have details on that.  But can I ask how troubling would you consider that to be?  Doesn't it highlight the actual vulnerabilities of those particular supply routes and the political and sensitivities and vulnerabilities of the northern route.  Doesn't that show the fragility of the supply line? 

 

                And I may just pick up on the point you made.  General McChrystal, you said, is confident about being able to demonstrate progress by the end of the year for the strategy.  But it's only a few months.  How, given that it's likely that there will be high levels of violence and political support is not going to change that much in that time?  How are you going to demonstrate that?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, we do expect a high level of violence, particularly this summer because we are going into places where the Taliban has basically been in control for two years or more, just as in Marja.  And so we do expect this to be a very tough summer.  But I think there will be measures of effectiveness that he will be able to show by the end of the year. 

 

                The truth of the matter is the additional forces that we've sent in, we now have about I think 17 or 18,000 of the 30,000 in country, but they've only been there for a few weeks, and some barely a couple of weeks.  I took President Karzai to see the deploying units from the 101st airborne just two or three weeks ago.

 

                So these forces are flowing in but have barely begun to arrive and become effective, and we still got another 12,000 or so to go.  And I would also point out that we do have seven months till the end of the year.  I mean, it's not like it's two or three months from now.  So I think that -- I defer to General McChrystal on this.

 

                In terms of the distribution networks, we've always been aware of the vulnerability of the Pakistani and the other routes for that matter.  And this is not the first attack.  It may be one of the largest.  But there have been periodic attacks against our convoys for several years.  I don't know the circumstances of this attack or how large it is or anything else, but it clearly is a tough logistical problem.

 

                Now, we have developed alternatives in the northern distribution network and both by rail and by air that make a difference.  But Pakistan is still very important in terms of the supply line.  There's no getting around that.

 

                MODERATOR:  One of our guys.  Dan?

 

                Q     Is there a change of plan or a change of approach in Kandahar?  I noticed the word "offensive" now not to be used and Marja was once described as a model Kandahar might be able to pursue.  Could you give us an idea of how that's going?  Has there been reassessment?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think there's one fundamental difference between Marja and Kandahar.  Marja was occupied for two years by the Taliban and controlled by the Taliban.  Kandahar is not occupied by the Taliban.  Kandahar is not controlled by the Taliban.  The Taliban do create security problems in and around Kandahar, and they do intimidate local officials, but the key is establishing security control around Kandahar -- I would draw the analogy to the belts around Baghdad -- and then through a process of governance and assistance, strengthening Afghan government presence and capabilities inside Kandahar itself.  But I think they are very different. 

 

                And that's why General McChrystal talks about there isn't going to be a D-Day, and this isn't something that's going to see big set-piece battles and so on.  It's going to be a very different kind of fight and one that in some ways, particularly in the political and economic arena, has been underway for some weeks now.

 

                Q     Just on EADS, the head of EADS has said that he's unwilling to name his U.S. partner for fear of retribution from Congress and I’m just wondering if you think that’s a healthy state of affairs and on the broader point in terms of BP, do you think the kind of rising anti-British sentiment around the BP incident could sour relations.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, that's kind of out my lane, but I have not in the U.S. press seen any connection whatsoever to the U.K. growing out of the disaster in the Gulf.  We want a fair and open competition for the tanker, and frankly efforts to discourage U.S. companies from participating in that competition I think do not help us.  So I was very disappointed to hear some of the comments that were made, and I hope that we will be able to go forward with this with a fair, transparent competition and finally get a tanker.

 

                Q     You have said in the past and yesterday most recently that by July of next year you would like to see the operation in Afghanistan transition from being a primary combat operation to being one that's focused on economic development.  Understanding that in order to make that happen, you're going to rely on what you hear from your commanders about conditions on the ground, but in your opinion, what metrics would you like to see used in order to make those determination?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, the first point to underscore is that July 2011 marks the beginning of a transition process.  And how fast that process occurs, the pace of drawdowns and so on will be determined by the conditions on the ground.  The president has been quite explicit on that.

 

                I think that -- I also believe that the determination of those areas that are ready to begin that transition process should originate in Afghanistan, not in London, not in Washington and not in Lisbon.  If it is to be conditions-based, then it must come from Afghanistan, from our commanders, from Ambassador Sedwell, from the Afghan government and all of them working together to identify those areas that are ready to begin this process of transition.  And the key will be not just the security situation but civil governance, the ability to deliver some measure of a rule of law and government services to people.  So it's both a civilian -- I think -- the ground has to be ready on both the civilian and the military sides to begin the transition process.

 

                I think -- I am pretty confident that we will in fact be able to begin that process sometime this coming winter in various parts of Afghanistan.  I'm not prepared to say where because I haven't heard specific recommendations from Afghanistan.  But if it is to be genuinely conditions-based, then the initiative has to come from Afghanistan.  If the decisions or naming provinces comes from the West, then it's a politics-driven transition and I believe that would be a very bad idea.

 

                MODERATOR:  Ma'am, do you have anything?

 

                Q     When do you think we'll start seeing British troops coming home -- sorry, it's Sky News by the way.

 

                SEC. GATES:  I'm sorry?

 

                Q     When do you think we'll start seeing British troops come home – nine and a half thousand out there?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I don't have an answer for that.

 

                MODERATOR:  Adam.

 

                Q     Just to change the subject slightly now, we've seen recent developments with  Turkey recently where they've -- they were working with Iran very closely and have been very aggressive in condemning the flotilla, and relations with Israel have taken an interesting turn.  I was wondering how concerned you are about the direction of Turkey in this regard, and what do you think the reason is and what do you think is behind it?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that deterioration in the relationship between Turkey and Israel over the past year or so is a matter of concern.  I think the two had a pretty constructive relationship and one that contributed to stability in the region.  And I hope that over time that kind of constructive relationship can be reestablished.

 

                I personally think that if there is -- if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving eastward, it is, in my view, in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed from some -- by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought.  And so I think we have to think long and hard about why these developments in Turkey and what we might be able to do to counter them and make the stronger linkages with the West more apparently of interest and value to Turkey's leaders.

 

                MODERATOR:  Do you have something?

 

                Q     Yeah.  Just to go back to Operation Hamkari in Kandahar, you say that, by the end of the year, General McChrystal will be able to show significant signs of progress.

 

                SEC. GATES:  I didn't use "significant."

 

                Q     Oh, sorry.  Sorry -- signs of progress.  I wonder what kind of things you would consider would show that that operation had been successful.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, again, it's a combination of civilian and security gains.  It's less intimidation.  It's less -- fewer assassinations.  It's a greater willingness on the part of Afghans to work with the government, to accept government positions, to participate in development programs, as well as an improved security situation around Kandahar.

 

                MODERATOR:  Have you got anything?

 

                Q    Yes.  I'd like to talk about -- ask about North Korea.

 

                In a speech in Singapore, you mentioned you are thinking about some additional measures except for joint exercise.  Could you clarify what would be possible other measures?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I declined to specify in Singapore, and I think I will continue to decline.

 

                MODERATOR:  Yeah.  Yushin.

 

                Q     Our new Japanese cabinet has started this week.  Could you give us your reaction?  And new prime minister is saying that he will go on with the agreement last month about the basing issue, and he and the defense minister and foreign minister remain in administration, which sends, I think, a kind of message to the United States.  What expectations -- if you have any concerns of base issues, please give us.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I'm very pleased that Minister Kitazawa is going to remain as minister.  I think that the stability and continuity is of value.  I've also had the opportunity now to meet with him a number of times and feel like we have a good relationship.

 

                I think that, first of all, I applaud the prime minister's statements in terms of the basing.  But now I think we have an obligation to work with our Japanese partners to see how we can together mitigate the impact in Okinawa of our military presence, whether it's having more training outside of Okinawa, whether it's noise-abatement procedures.  I think there are some things that we need to look at in terms of how we can be helpful.  And I think that's what we'll be doing going forward.

 

                MODERATOR:  Yeah.  Yeah, Tom.

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, the general tone of the questions on Afghanistan has been "When are our troops coming home?"  Do you think you may have a political problem with the war in Afghanistan, like there was a political problem with the war in Iraq?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I would say two things.  First, I think that it is probably a reality that in virtually all of the coalition countries, the publics are going to expect to see some progress this winter, some sign that we are moving in the right direction.

 

                I think that the voters are sophisticated enough to know that we're not going to be done, there won't be victory, and that we still have a long road to hoe, -- a long row to hoe.  But if we have -- if we are making progress, if it's clear that we have the right strategy, then I think that people will be patient.

 

                The one thing that I think none of the publics -- and I would say including the American public -- will tolerate is the perception of a stalemate in which we're losing young men.  And so I think that those are the two circumstances that will dominate going forward.  But I think that if we are able to show we're on the right track, that the political leaders do have some additional flexibility and time.  But stalemate will be a big problem for everybody, including the United States.

 

                MODERATOR:  Craig Whitlock

 

                Q     Sir, if I could follow up on your comments about showing progress by the end of the year on these things, in Kandahar, how decisive is Kandahar in this whole strategy?  Is it fair to say that if Kandahar is not stabilized, that the whole strategy can't work for ISAF and Afghanistan?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think it's important to remember that Kandahar is not Afghanistan.  Clearly Helmand and Kandahar are important because that essentially has been the Taliban homeland.  The truth of the matter is -- and Dr. Fox noted this yesterday -- there are some parts of Afghanistan where markets and so on are thriving.  There are millions of children going to school, people being given basic health care and so on.

 

                So I would say that we have to be mindful.  I mean, we've got some challenges in Regional Command East that we need to take care of.  After all, the five soldiers -- as I recall, the five soldiers who were killed day before yesterday, American soldiers, were killed in RC East.

 

                So they're -- I think the way I would frame it is Kandahar and Helmand are important, but they are not the only provinces in Afghanistan that matter in terms of the outcome of this struggle.  But there's no getting around the fact that the two of them are important.

 

                MODERATOR:  Yes, sir.

 

                Q     Just a quick question to follow up on Yushins. Local government seems to be opposed to

 

                MODERATOR:  Can you speak up, please?

 

                Q     The local government seems to be opposed to the agreement so far.  How do you – read this?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Opposed to what agreement?

 

                MODERATOR:  The basing agreement, the 2+2 statement in Okinawa.  The local people in Okinawa -- the local governments are still opposed to it, so how do you get over that?

 

                Q     Right.  That's right.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that's fundamentally a challenge or a matter for the Japanese government to deal with.  But I think -- as I just said, I think there are some things we need to be looking at that will help them in that endeavor.

 

                MODERATOR:  Let’s just --  John, do you have anything?

 

                Q     No, sir.

 

                MODERATOR:  Okay.  Nick.

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, one of the most significant programs, U.S.-U.K., at the moment is the Joint Strike Fighter program.  First of all, what's your current assessment of the health of what has been a very difficult program?  And did Dr. Fox, in your discussions, give any indication that the British government is reconsidering the number of aircraft it might ultimately buy because of the fiscal problems?

 

                SEC. GATES:  No, there was no discussion of that at our meeting.  And I won't speak for him, but I think that -- I think those are the kinds of issues that are probably going to be addressed in the strategic review.

 

                First of all, I think one of the important things to make clear is that the problems we have encountered with the Joint Strike Fighter have not been about its meeting the technical performance standards that are required, whether it's the aircraft itself or the engine for it.  In both cases, what we have encountered are production and management problems.

 

                We think that with the restructuring of the program, with adding resources to the development-and-test program, first in FY '10 and now in FY '11, we think that with the restructuring of the program and a new program director, that we now have a program in place that will -- that we will be able to deliver.  We will still stand up the training, the first training squadron of F-35s in Florida at Eglin Air Force Base in 2011.

 

                The first aircraft will begin to be delivered to the Marine Corps in 2012 and to the Air Force in 2013 and '14 -- Air Force and Navy.  Full IOC for our Air Force and Navy will be pushed back probably from 2014 to 2016.  But in terms of beginning to deliver aircraft, we will begin to deliver the aircraft essentially in the years that they were originally planned.

 

                We are trying to hold the contractor's feet to the fire.  As you all are aware, we withheld a $615 million performance payment.  And I think you will see much tougher management, from the government's standpoint, of this program going forward.  I hope that firing the program manager was also highly incentivizing.

 

                MODERATOR:  Kim.

 

                Q     Just one quick question.  President Karzai, when he went to Washington recently, got the red-carpet treatment, in marked contrast I’ve just found to some of the exchanges he's had with western leaders in Kabul regarding corruption.  But then we have the peace jirga in Kabul, followed by some very high-profile resignations from Mr. Karzai's government.

 

                I'm just wondering, Defense Secretary, what your view was about the domestic political situation in Afghanistan  and how much authority President Karzai commands in the country.

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, you have to start with the fact that he is the elected president of the country.  And he is attempting to develop a government that does things that have never been done before in Afghan history in terms of delivering services to the people and so on.

 

                So there's no question that there are a lot of challenges.  But, you know, we have confidence in him.  We had a very productive set of meetings with him in Washington.  I think he fully understands that we intend to be there to help him for the indefinite future.  I talked yesterday in the press availability about the problems that our turning our backs on Afghanistan helped create in 1988-1989, that led to the Taliban takeover a few years later, or contributed to it.

 

                And so I think the first thing that -- one of the challenges that the president has had is to persuade both the Pakistanis and the Afghans that we are going to remain engaged with these countries far into the future, and we're not going to repeat some of the mistakes of the past in terms of U.S. policy.

 

                I think that, you know, the decision on the ministers is clearly an internal Afghan matter.  And as I've said, I simply hope that President Karzai appoints ministers of equal caliber the next time around.

 

                MODERATOR:  Yeah, go ahead.

 

                Q     Mr Secretary. The British are undergoing a strategic defense and security review at the moment. What is your expectation – it’s in the early days – of what might happen if cutting troop numbers in British armies is one of those expectated by that,  or major programs potentially such as JSF..  How much of a concern would that be to the United States if the British (inaudible)?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, as I said yesterday, you cannot have a strong military without a strong economy.  And that's as true of the United States as it is of any other country.  And, you know, one of the things that I've tried to do -- begun trying to do is how do I sustain -- how do I sustain our force structure and investments in the future within the framework of the budget that I have now?

 

                And so we are undertaking a pretty dramatic review and number of measures to try and take money from overhead and from administrative structures and use that money to help sustain the force structure and future investment.

 

                There's been some confusion in the press about what my goal is.  My goal -- this enterprise is not about finding money to sustain current operations.  Those are taken care of in our supplementals and the Overseas Contingency Operation funds.  This is all about how do I sustain this force structure five years from now, and how do I sustain investments in future capabilities?

 

                My suspicion is that one of the things that our British colleagues will be doing is looking at exactly those kinds of things.  How do you reduce overhead?  How do you -- and what kinds of capabilities do you need?  I told Dr. Fox yesterday one of my concerns is not the failure to invest in future capabilities.  It is that some of the future capabilities that we were investing in were legacies of old Cold War systems that were originally designed for use against the Soviet Union, and we were still investing in them.

 

                So what are the new capabilities we're going to need in the 21st century, and how do we find the money to invest in those?  So the programs that I -- I cut 30 programs last year, which, had they been built through to the end, would have cost about $330 billion.  So I think that you can make some tough choices and still end up with very capable military forces.  The key is figuring out what you really need looking forward and looking beyond the wars that we're in right now.

 

                MODERATOR:  Richard.  We probably only have time for a couple more.  Richard.

 

                Q     I suppose you wouldn’t  want to offer any suggestions that the British also have, what British Cold War legacy systems.  (Laughter.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  (Laughs.)  No.

 

                MODERATOR:  (Inaudible.)

 

                Q     (Inaudible.)  Yesterday I think you said, Secretary, that there may be a need to discuss  with Dr Fox may be a question or rather a need for additional U.S. troops in -- U.S. troops helping the British in Helmand.  Can you comment on that?  I think that's what you said in the --

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, there was some -- there was some discussion of whether there were -- I mean, one of the challenges that we have faced in Afghanistan and that led to General McChrystal's request for the significant additional forces was the recognition that we simply didn't have enough manpower in the country to be able to be successful, to have the kind of sustained presence that is required in a counterinsurgency strategy.

 

                I think, if I understood Dr. Fox correctly, I think the view of the British military is they probably don't have enough manpower to do that in their areas of Helmand.  So the question is, of the additional U.S. forces coming in, can some of those be assigned to those areas of Helmand?  And I basically -- I basically deferred that question to General McChrystal.

 

                MODERATOR:  I think this fire alarm may be saying something to us, but let's take one last question.  Who wants it?  You got a very abridged answer.  Do you want it?

 

                Q     Um no, I think I’m OK.

 

                MODERATOR:  Okay.  You had one?

 

                Q     Uh --

 

                MODERATOR:  No, you're struggling to find it.  (Laughter.)  All right, last one.

 

                Q     Okay.  It's Alex Barker from the Financial Times.  But you're saying about the incentives of dismissing people and then you're kind of taking a tougher approach, and you've been through a number of commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years, and yet the British military, that has faced similar problems in both theaters, has never dismissed a commander, I don't think, since before the Falklands War.

 

                I'm just -- could you comment on that kind of cultural difference, whether you --

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I don't think it's as dramatic as you suggest, because the reality is -- I mean, I don't know all the particulars about our personnel before I came to this job in late 2006.  But to the best of my knowledge, only one commander has actually been replaced, and that was in Afghanistan.

 

                MODERATOR:  Okay, I think that's it.  Thank you guys for coming; appreciate it.

 

                Q     Thank you.

 

                MODERATOR:  I know you had conflicting offers, including a briefing on Iran by your government, but thanks for coming by.  I hope that was helpful.

 

 

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