Press Availability with Secretary Gates from COP Senjaray, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
SEC. GATES: Now first of all, I think the most important thing is that I come away from my visits down here this morning encouraged. The partnering that is going on, the understanding of what the strategy is on the part of company-grade officers through the most senior officers, their conviction that they're making a difference, their conviction that they are, in fact, making progress, hearing their experiences and seeing more locals being willing to work with them and cooperate with them I think all points in a positive direction.
The reality is, just like the two units that I visited today, which have taken losses, there will be more. And they all acknowledge that this is a hard fight and that they face a resilient enemy. But I think you heard yourselves, in the confident terms that the captain was talking about, that they know what they're doing here, they know what they're supposed to do; they understand the importance of partnering; they understand the importance of getting the Afghans in the lead as quickly as possible and being sensitive to the local culture.
I think that in terms of our understanding of what we need to do, we're a long way ahead of where we were a year or two or three ago. Again, everybody knows this is far from a done deal. There is a lot of hard fighting to go, but the confidence of these young men and women that they can be successful in turn gives me confidence.
Q Sir, how much will the outcome of this war in Afghanistan depend on the success you have in Kandahar? How crucial is it?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think Kandahar, as the traditional core area for the Taliban, is clearly important. I think that there is a sense that both Helmand and Kandahar are important, but then the east is important, too. RC East is important. But I think that the commanders would tell you that -- that the hardest fight is likely to be here in the south. It has been in the past, and probably will continue to be. And by inference, it seems to me that that says the Taliban considers this very important; and therefore, it's important to us.
Q Are you going to be able to show progress in December? General Rodriguez said -- he said we -- "I'll be able to show progress. Significant progress, I don't know about that."
SEC. GATES: Yeah, I think we will -- the question -- the question to be addressed in December is whether the strategy is working. Are we headed in the right direction? Do we have enough evidence of progress that tells us that we are in fact on the right track? That's what our assessment is about. And based on what I've seen here today, I'm hopeful that we will be in that position.
Q How will you measure success, sort of between now and the time of that assessment? What would you like to have happen --
SEC. GATES: Well, one of the things -- I mean, this is one of the things that we've been asking of -- in the assignment basically given to General Petraeus and the Afghans and General Rodriguez and so on, is, okay, what are the benchmarks, what are the criteria by which we will judge we are making progress?
Some of those are fairly evident. Others they're still developing. One that obviously is important is, is the ANA meeting its goals in terms of recruitment and retention? How about the quality of the ANA as well as the quantity? The same thing with the Afghan National Police.
So those are some -- two of the measures that are obviously important. But they are in the process of developing the criteria or the -- the criteria by which we will be able to assess whether or not we're making progress.
STAFF: Let's try one from the Afghan press here, if we may. Afghan press?
STAFF: Go ahead.
Q Can you tell us when –the foreign forces will leave Afghanistan -- (off mike) -- that we will not leave Afghanistan as soon or in July 2011. So what do you think?
SEC. GATES: Well, you know, as I mentioned last night, President Karzai has set the goal for the Afghan government of having the security responsibility for the entire country transferred to the Afghan government by 2014. I think that we will have some presence here for quite some period of time, but we will begin a very -- we will begin drawing down in July. But as I said last night, that will be based on -- the pace and the numbers that we draw down will depend on the conditions on the ground.
But it is in our interest, it is in the Afghans' interest to be able to transition security responsibility as soon as the Afghans are able to take it on.
And there are places in the country where we probably could do that now. But we will be looking at this, and it'll be district by district. But we see a -- an inexorable process over the next two or three years in which we will be able to shift our primary role in helping Afghanistan from a military one to training and assistance and development.
Q What do your commanders tell you that dissuades you or should dissuade us of the view that in essence what's happening here is, you push the insurgents from one district to another and they just -- it's sort of like Whack-A-Mole, you know. What do they tell you that convinces otherwise?
SEC. GATES: Well, that's one of the problems with a pure counterterrorism strategy, is that that really is Whack-A-Mole. And the virtue of the approach that we're taking and of the strategy that the president approved was that his approach was, we're not going to clear and attempt to hold areas that we can't -- that we don't think we can transfer to the Afghans.
So the endgame here is that you reduce steadily the area in which the Taliban can operate, first because of the international and Afghan effort together and then ultimately because the Afghans themselves have the capacity, from local police to the national police to the ANCOPs and so on, the border police; that the ability of the Taliban to move around and to basically move from place to place has been severely limited.
Q But just because you transfer responsibility from us to the --
Q But Secretary -- Secretary Gates --
SEC. GATES: Al?
Q Mr. Secretary, you talked to a lot of soldiers today. I'm just wondering, what are the PFCs and the specialists telling you about the mission here? And do they have everything they need to do the job?
SEC. GATES: I had -- I had lunch with some junior enlisted today, and as my remarks suggested, it is -- it is a testimony to their commitment, their determination and their commitment to this mission that the biggest -- that the two biggest complaints that I got from them was, first of all, that their wireless was down; second, that their dryers are working okay but four of their five washing machines aren't; and the same problem that I heard about the last time I was in Afghanistan, and that is that the trousers of the ACU aren't strong enough.
Q Mr. Secretary, you're familiar with General Conway's comment about the July 2011 date giving sustenance to the enemy. Did you hear anything from the troops or the commanders about that date being out there? Is it making their jobs more difficult in terms of dealing with the local Afghans?
SEC. GATES: No. The only thing that I heard -- that I saw, rather than heard, was that it has lent an urgency to our getting on with this, to the training of the Afghans, getting the Afghans in the field and getting our own operations under way. Frankly, I think it's also added some urgency to us at the Pentagon in terms of getting these people what they need to be able to get into this fight right away.
The reality is, last January, we committed to the president that we would then move heaven and Earth to get this surge in by the end of August. The truth of the matter is that there were a lot of skeptics inside the Department of Defense that we actually could get that done, and particularly at the same time we were doing the drawdown in Iraq.
It has been done. It has been accomplished. And I think the fact that we can do that tells me that there is this -- there's these skills and this commitment to be able to carry through on this strategy.
Q Mr. Secretary, is it still your view that the time is not right for the highest-level reconciliation because the momentum of the military struggle hasn't occurred first?
SEC. GATES: My personal opinion is that for high-level reconciliation it probably is still premature.
STAFF: Okay, one last one.
Q Can I follow up on that? What -- and what -- what's the metric, and how do you determine at what point it's turned the other way? Does the Kandahar operation have to go a certain way, for example?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think it's -- I think it's really -- this is one of those things where, both with respect to reintegration and reconciliation, I think that the lead in terms of sense of timing and so on really needs to come from here in Afghanistan -- from the Afghans, from General Petraeus, from Ambassador Eikenberry. I think they will be in a better position than any of us in Washington, or in Brussels or anyplace else, to have a sense of when things have begun to change, in terms of what they're hearing here in Afghanistan, in terms of whether reconciliation then can proceed.
Q And by the way, will those benchmarks that you mentioned earlier, will those things be made public once they've finished compiling that list?
SEC. GATES: Everything in Washington is eventually public. (Laughter.)
STAFF: All right, thank you all.
Q Thank you.