Press Availability with Secretary Gates from the NATO Ministerial at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium
SEC. GATES: Our last session focused on our most important mission: the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan and allow the Afghan people to control their own destiny for the first time in more than three decades, and ensure that it never again becomes a launching pad for international terrorism.
Almost exactly a year ago, I introduced General McChrystal to the defense ministers here in Brussels, just before he assumed command at Kabul. Since then, allies and partners have steadily increased their commitments and demonstrated the resolve to see this mission through to a successful end. We still need more trainers, who are as critical as -- who are critical as we develop the process of transition to an Afghan lead based on conditions on the ground.
Overall, I think that there was general agreement on five points: first, that our effort is moving in the right direction; second, that the road ahead will be long and hard; third, that the elements of success -- troops, civilians, strategy, growing ANSF and government capacity -- are in place, or well in progress; fourth, that we have regained the initiative; and fifth, that progress is being made, slowly but steadily and sustainably.
General McChrystal told the ministers that he is confident that he will be able to show progress in the south and across the country and that the strategy is working by the end of the year. These gains will not come quickly or without high cost -- a point driven home by the terrible losses suffered by multiple nations in recent days. These sacrifices remind us once again that this is a military alliance with real-world obligations that have life-or-death consequences. And they demand of us that we maintain a sense of urgency when it comes to institutional reforms in NATO to redirect resources to essential capabilities, especially those that support current operations and our Article 5 obligations.
Our first priority is to provide our troops in the field the resources they need, such as counter-IED capabilities. But during a time of war and a time of fiscal austerity, all other expenditures have to be closely scrutinized. It has been clear for some time now that NATO has excess infrastructure and outdated command and headquarters structures that bear little resemblance to our real-world needs. In many cases, the current NATO arrangement reflects the political need to maintain a wide geographic presence and to generate support for specific NATO policies.
The harsh truth is, we can no longer afford to use NATO as a job-creation program. Instead, all decisions on reforming NATO's military-command structure must be based solely on real military requirements to create a lean but flexible organization, one that is affordable, scalable and deployable. The measures we must take are not about cutting people and costs, per se; rather, they are about focusing on real reforms to achieve and create an effective and efficient alliance.
Recently, the United States Department of Defense has been grappling with the same challenge of balancing between cutting costs and maintaining key programs and capabilities. We have realized we must do everything possible to eliminate waste and inefficiencies in order to maintain full support for modernization and, perhaps most important, our force structures. The worst thing any of us could do would be to try to save money at the expense of our men and women in uniform or needed military capabilities.
At dinner last night, I was very encouraged by and supportive of Secretary-General Rasmussen's detailed reform agenda.
In one telling example, ministers approved efforts to consolidate 14 NATO agencies, which cost over $5 billion a year, into three. I also urged the secretary-general to make lasting reductions in the civilian staff at NATO Headquarters. With his leadership, I believe we will have a set of even bolder reforms before the November summit in Lisbon.
There is widespread agreement among ministers that we must address our institutional problems, and address them soon. The task before us now is to act, to summon the will and courage to make tough but necessary decisions. Doing so is critical for the long-term viability and credibility of NATO, and to the transatlantic project writ large.
Q Are you comfortable with the pace of operations in Kandahar, as it's off to a slightly slower start than planned? And have you left General McChrystal enough time, once the Kandahar operation really begins in earnest, to show the kind of progress that you said he needs them to do by the end of the year?
SEC. GATES: I think the key is on the phrase "to show progress." I -- what I -- what my expectation and what my hope is that by the end of the year, we will be able to demonstrate that we have the right strategy and that we are making progress throughout the country. It's still -- as I just said, it's going to be a long and difficult fight.
But the key is not that there's going to be some end state by the end of December where we suddenly declare victory or say that Kandahar is done. Kandahar is a project that will take a number of months. And as we have seen in Helmand, it takes time. Our efforts in the Helmand River Valley began last June, and now we're (in last ?) July.
And we are beginning to see significant progress in the Helmand River Valley -- first when the Marines went in near Garmsir and further south of there last summer, and now the effort around Marja and Nad Ali. So I think, frankly, I -- my estimation of and expectations of hopes are based on what General McChrystal tells me, not on what I tell General McChrystal.
Q (Name inaudible) -- the German Press Agency, DPA. Mr. Secretary, we've heard a lot about the need for trainers. We've heard calls for trainers. What we haven't heard is any responses on the question of who's going to provide more trainers. Given the number that the U.S. is already providing, are you satisfied with the European contribution? Or do you get the feeling that the U.S. is carrying all the weight on this, as well as on many other things?
SEC. GATES: Well, we certainly aren't carrying all the weight. And a number of Europeans are contributing a significant number of trainers.
That said, as I said in London a couple of days ago, it seems to me that particularly for those countries that do not have a large combat presence in Afghanistan, that providing trainers is another way to serve. And it is a need.
And the secretary-general made the point in the meeting this morning. The number of trainers and the growth and capability of the Afghan national security forces is directly tied to the pace that we can proceed to transition in different places in the country. And what I have done is provide a bridge of about 800 Marines and soldiers as trainers. But I consider that a temporary deployment until the Europeans arrive this fall, and also to bridge the gap until more trainers are found. But it is my intent that those additional American trainers will redeploy come this fall. But I (didn't ?) -- I did take that action a few weeks ago.
Q (Inaudible.) Turkey.
After Turkey rejected the sanctions on Iran, in the United Nations, this was the first contact -- (off mike) -- minister of defense. And my question is, is this affecting -- will this be affecting the NATO support to Turkey in the Mediterranean?
Specifically the Israeli-Turkey tension -- (off mike) -- will this be affecting -- how do you evaluate -- you had the bilateral meeting also with the Turkish defense minister yesterday.
What is your personal feelings out of that bilateral meeting? Can you tell us?
SEC. GATES: Well, I'll be honest. I was disappointed in Turkey's decision on the Iranian sanctions.
That said, Turkey is a decades-long ally of the United States and other members of NATO. Turkey continues to play a critical part in the alliance. We have a strong military-to-military relationship with Turkey. We obviously have facilities in Turkey.
So allies don't always agree on things. But I think we move forward from here, and we'll just do that.
Q (Inaudible.) Jane's Defense Weekly.
Every organization in the world, public or privately, uses the word efficiency either directly or as a euphemism for reducing personnel and costs. You seem to be arguing the contrary when you say that this is not about doing that per se.
For instance, it's all well and good to combine 14 agencies into three when it costs 5 billion (dollars). But unless the cost goes down -- (off mike) -- budget or the personnel, you have not achieved efficiency.
So how are you going to address this? Thank you.
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that there -- I think there are three elements to it.
First, I think that -- and in fact, when it came to both the agencies and NATO headquarters, I said at the dinner last night that the number of personnel have to come down, that -- and I also said that it isn't enough to take 14 agencies and redraw the organization structure on a piece of paper and call that change.
I've seen that too many times in government. And that's usually an excuse for no change. You just call it something different. And it takes people to figure out what you -- a while to figure out what you've done. I've done it a few times myself. (Laughter.)
What is needed is changes in the way of doing business, reductions in personnel and cost savings overall. And I think that those are really essential requirements in terms of the changes. And my view was, we can't expect significant changes in the military command structure and in the agencies, without also demanding personnel changes and reductions at NATO headquarters itself.
Q You described that in Afghanistan, you have made progress. Can you give us an idea which progress -- (off mike) -- descriptions of what you have achieved? You said that NATO has regained the initiative in Afghanistan. Who had the initiative before?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think clearly until last year, the Taliban had the initiative. There's no question in my mind about that.
I mean, I think -- I think we forget sort of the historical context here. We basically won the war in Afghanistan, and the Taliban -- in 2002, when the Taliban fled to Pakistan.
What happened over the next three or four years is that, by using -- taking advantage of safe havens on the Pakistani side of the border, the Taliban were able to reconstitute themselves, and so the level of violence began to increase again in 2006.
We saw that. When I took this job in December 2006, I told President Bush that I thought that we had not paid enough attention to Afghanistan. And within a couple of months of taking the job, I added another American brigade. We added a further American brigade, and then the president in 2008 brought the total troop numbers from, when I arrived at about 17,000 U.S., to about 42,000. That had been authorized and a lot of those hadn’t arrived by the end of 2008.
So the reality is, both on the civilian and the military side, that Afghanistan was neglected until 2007 or so. We took our -- we did take our eye off the ball. And it gave the Taliban the opportunity to capture the momentum, and particularly in the south.
So that's the condition that we find ourselves in. And what we have seen over the past really only -- and here's where I, frankly, get a little impatient with some of the coverage, because of the lack of historical context. Just from the U.S. standpoint, the significant increase in military capabilities and presence and in civilian capacity only began in December-January. December of 2009, January 2010.
General McChrystal has spent the last year sorting out the situation, figuring out what the right strategy is. So as far as I'm concerned, this endeavor began in full, and reasonably resourced, only a few months ago.
A counterinsurgency takes a good bit of time. But we have places in Helmand -- in the Central Helmand Valley, where bazaars have reopened, where kids are going back to school, where people or kids are being immunized, where the markets have reopened. We're seeing some of these areas elsewhere. And, I would add, Helmand and Kandahar are not all of Afghanistan. And so you would not know you were in the same country if you were in Herat or some of the other big cities in the country.
So I think, frankly, that there needs to be a little broader perspective. No one would deny that the signs of progress are tentative at this point, that they are almost anecdotal. And you see them in various places around the country. But if you talk to the people that have been there a while, you talk to the people that are on the ground and moving around the country as a whole, their view is that the situation is slowly beginning to improve and that we are recapturing the initiative.
Q Secretary Gates, we saw a statement today about the opening of this northern supply route through Russia and the Central Asian countries for NATO supply convoys. Would you mind commenting on that? I know that the U.S. and some individual countries have had bilateral arrangements in the past, but I think this is a first for NATO as an alliance.
SEC. GATES: Well, yeah. And it's really all of the allies. And I would say, through the northern distribution network -- and there are two or three elements to it -- at this point, since it opened last year, we've probably delivered somewhere on the order of 14,000 sea containers of equipment and supplies.
So it is substantial. The Central Asian states are playing a key role, Russia is playing a key role, both in terms of ground transportation and in terms of overflights.
Q (Off mike) – Defense News. You were talking about how countering IEDs is an extremely important priority. Can you say what is being done and what should be done to counter IEDs through NATO in terms of training and in terms of capabilities, and also where the EU might fit into that?
SEC. GATES: Well, we have -- in Istanbul, I made a commitment to share both training and intelligence and equipment to deal with IEDs with all of our allies and partner nations. We are -- we are providing -- we've already started providing the training. We have training under way for seven nations. That will grow to 11 within the next few months. And that training will start, actually, next week.
We are -- we have gotten approval through the Congress -- we are going to buy a hundred MRAPs, the -- (pause) -- I'm a little tired here -- Mine-Resistan Ambush-Protected vehicles, that we can share with our allies. We are making arrangements for allies to buy them directly if they should choose.
We are providing access to our computer networks that have all of the lessons learned that we have on IEDs. We are setting up a situation where every man and woman from the alliance and among our partner nations that deploys to Afghanistan will have counter-IED training. And then on our own, we're putting a lot more equipment into place -- aerostats and a variety of other technical things -- to better enable us to spot IEDs being planted, but also to help us track the networks.
Q On the Mideast. Israeli officials are very anxious about Iran and skeptical of any type of sanctions. I was wondering, how much time do you think you have to show that the sanctions can work? And what do you do if the sanctions don’t -- (off mike)?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I would say that Israeli skepticism of the sanctions is not exactly a new development. I think that we are in very close touch with the Israelis on developments in Iran. Clearly, the purpose of the sanctions and of the U.N. resolution is, combined with diplomatic efforts, to try and persuade the Iranian government that their security will actually be worse if they proceed with a nuclear weapons program than if they do not, because of proliferation in the region and the potential for military action, whether it's from Israel or someplace else.
So I think -- you know, we're staying in touch. I think everybody agrees we have some more time, including the Israelis. And we will just continue to work it as hard as we can.
Q (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: Well, I would say that most people think that the Iranians could not really have a nuclear weapons -- a nuclear weapon for at least another year or two. I would say the intelligence estimates range from one to three years or so. But that's different than weaponization or a delivery system or anything like that.
But clearly, them getting to the threshold of having a weapon is what concerns everybody, not the other things. And in that area, I would say there is a range there of between one and three years.
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