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DOD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and French Minister of Defense Morin

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and French Minister of Defense Herve Morin
September 16, 2010

                (Note: Defense Minister Morin’s remarks are through interpreter.)

                SEC. GATES:  I’m pleased to welcome Minister Morin back to the Pentagon.  He and I have worked together now for well over three years, and our close collaboration reflects the strong defense relationship between the United States and France stretching back to America’s founding. 

                Today we discussed our many shared defense goals and priorities. At the top of the agenda was Afghanistan, where France has been a strong partner in the international military campaign, both in the fight and also as a major contributor to ISAF’s critically important mission to train the Afghan security forces. 

                Our two nations also share a commitment to fighting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; in particular, efforts to convince the Iranian regime to live up to its international obligations regarding its nuclear program.  And we appreciate France’s steadfast leadership on this issue. 

                We appreciate as well their crucial efforts to help our partners in Africa fight against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  Success in the struggle against terrorism can only be achieved through the kind of integrated international actions exemplified by this effort. 

                Finally, we discussed the revitalization and reform of NATO. Today’s meetings have been a welcome opportunity in preparation for the Lisbon summit meeting in November to share our -- to discuss our shared commitment to increasing the alliance’s efficiency and effectiveness. 

                Both of our nations recognize the need for NATO to deliver capabilities geared toward 21st century threats, including cyber defenses, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, counter- IED and more mobile and deployable forces.  We also discussed the reform of NATO’s headquarters and command structures. 

                I thank Minister Morin for his visit today.  

                I look forward to seeing him again next month at the NATO joint defense and foreign ministers’ meeting, and would like to invite him to make a few remarks before we take questions. 

                MIN. MORIN:  Ladies and gentlemen, first of all, I would like to thank Bob Gates for his warm welcome and for the quality of our conversation.  We were chatting earlier that we’re probably the most senior ministers within the Atlantic alliance in terms of duration, of tenure.   

                And I still remember our first meeting in the French ministry of defense notably in Paris in May 2007 and our first ceremony together in the American cemeteries on the 6th of June 2007 in Normandy, which was, for me, a moment that I will always cherish and remember, because I’m French and I’m also a Norman.  So I was -- and I was born surrounded by the American white crosses in the Norman campaign.  So this relationship of trust made possible to broach all the various subjects that are feeding our agenda on a daily basis. 

                I think, first and foremost, that there is, in between the two of us, a huge confidence and a bilateral relationship which is extremely powerful, like between France and the United States, and that this confidence is -- lies both on the -- at the political level and at the military level.   

                So I believe that both on the Iranian situation, the situation in Afghanistan, the counterterrorism measures, the relationship between the United States and the European Union -- on all these topics, we have a common approach.   

                More particularly, we had -- we dedicated a lot of our -- part of our working lunch to the evolution of the Atlantic alliance.  You know that since 2007, France and Great Britain have been pushing a lot towards the evolution of the structures of the alliance and the reduction process of bureaucracy within NATO.  And when the United States joined us on this idea with the power of the voice -- of Bob Gates’ voice in the concert, of this will, a determination to reorganize, things are speeding up.   

                So we do hope that during the Lisbon summit and our next meeting in Brussels in October, next October -- we hope that we will -- it will be possible to establish this new organization; that would make it possible to save lots of money on the operational -- on the operation of NATO, the -- cut -- the suppression of several thousand positions, both within the secretariat general and all the -- and the headquarters, but also within the agencies.  And these cuts will enable us to find new further resources to fund the capability programs that the alliance has decided upon.  

                And last topic I would like to broach before I answer your questions, of course we have broached our cooperation in terms of industry and defense.  I had the occasion to remind the Secretary Gates, since I’ve been doing it since 2007, saying that the America -- the United States are in the world the advocate of free competition and transparent competition and opening of borders for a World Trade Organization that is free as possible and that of course this had to be done in both ways, so that -- and that the military budget -- European military budget have to welcome military -- American military programs and equipment, since starting -- take into account that it’s a decision by the government. 

                But it could be vice versa, so that the European equipment could equip the American forces.  European equipment could equip the American forces. 

                And with Bob Gates we have also talked about the ongoing work about equipping the French forces and about -- with UAVs -- and I thanked him for the -- his support and help -- so that we can possibly be one of the countries that can be equipped with the excellent quality of the American products of this issue. 

                SEC. GATES:  Thom. 

                Q     Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  A question for you and the minister on Afghanistan.  When we hear from commanders on the ground, in recent days they’ve been giving a fairly upbeat assessment -- it’s cautiously optimistic, I think clearly upbeat -- and what they’re seeing is signs of progress. 

                You’re on the record as saying that it’s exactly those concrete signs of progress that you’ll have to show the American public between now and December to sustain their support for the strategy.   

                What is your assessment today, Mr. Secretary?  What concrete signs of progress are you seeing?  And are you confident that it will be sustainable and will even expand, since, come the December review, you can argue for continuing the strategy? 

                And Mr. Minister, is there any sort of gap or daylight between your assessment of progress from the American view? 

                And will your public continue to support the Afghan mission?  Thank you. 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I would say, as I said in Afghanistan when I was in Kandahar, that I was encouraged by what I had seen.  I think that most of us try to err on the side of caution, because of previous experiences, particularly in Iraq, of people perhaps being too optimistic -- and certainly, too optimistic prematurely.  But that said, what I have -- the one line that I picked up when I was in Afghanistan was that it seemed like the closer to the front lines you are, the more confident and encouraged people are. 

                And there is no question that this is a tough fight, and we are just at the beginning, in many respects.  The last American forces in the surge literally arrived just within the last three weeks or so. Some of the forces that I visited had been on the ground only two weeks.  And so we are at the beginning of a process, and it is incremental.  And the question is, is our campaign plan -- to look at in December and beyond, is the campaign plan working?  Is the principle proven that this is the right approach?  And the evidence that General Petraeus is seeing so far suggests to him that it is -- and both on the civilian and the military side, not just the military side. 

                But he is cautious, and I will be cautious. 

                As I say, it’s early.  And we just -- we need to have confidence and be able to demonstrate, I would say in four to six months, that we are moving in the right direction, we are moving toward the accomplishment of our goals.  I think there is a general feeling that there has been some progress in that area, but it will have to be sustained. 

                One of the things that I think our military points to as encouraging is that one of the key parameters that we talked about a year ago was the growth in both the numbers and the quality of the Afghan National Security Forces.  And we are seeing a significant improvement in the Afghan National Army, in both numbers and quality. 

                Police is a tougher problem.  It’s been a tougher problem all along.  It was a tougher problem in Iraq.  But in that particular -- with respect to that particular piece of concrete information, that’s one thing where I think people really have something we can point to as being encouraging. 

                So I don’t want to mislead anybody; this is a hard fight.  There are many challenges ahead.  We will lose more kids.  But I think General Petraeus has the feeling we’re on the right track. 

                MIN. MORIN:  Very frankly, had you been part of the lunch, you would have seen that there was a -- views were converging completely on this issue.  It’s a very difficult combat – struggle, a very difficult struggle.  It is probably more difficult to explain this struggle in Europe than in the United States, because it’s true that for the part of the Europeans, it’s difficult to understand that 6,000 kilometers away from home and in an area of influence which is not a traditional area of influence in Europe, a part of the safety of the world is at stake in Afghanistan. 

                There’s no need to hide it; it’s the truth. 

                I’ve been in this position for three-and-a-half years.  I went to Afghanistan half a dozen times.  So -- more than that; a dozen times, actually.  And I could see actually very, very visible improvements. 

                Bob Gates was totally right when he was talking about the Afghan National Army.  In the beginning I saw an army that was not an army -- of competence in the field.  And certainly not troops in the military sense of it.  Now they are military troops.  And they are perfectly able to conduct operations, sometimes with the support of ISAF.  But they’re able to conduct operations. 

                It’s true that for the police it’s more difficult, because to train a policeman is more -- it’s probably more complicated.  I’m sorry to say this in front -- in the Pentagon, but it’s probably difficult to -- difficult and most -- yeah, difficult to train the policemen than the military because it’s judicial, it’s the hearings, it’s the written procedures, it’s all things that are more elaborate and more difficult. 

                But I think that everybody’s convinced today come -- success comes through maybe development and military actions coming together.  In stabilizations, a number of areas have to be competent immediately by development policies and rebuilding policies.  

                And I remind them that there are today 6 million young Afghans who go to school.  Young girls go to school as well.  In Afghanistan universities have been opened.  Roads are being built.   

                And when, yes, you go on the field and you see the troops on the field who month after month are building, are participating in rebuilding Afghanistan, you will see many signs of -- tokens of optimism. 

                I am really longing for the year 2011, because the year 2011 has to be the -- in conformity with the plan fixed by NATO, has to be the year during which we will begin transferring zones to the Afghans, a system of overlays. Not only a direct transfer -- just handover, direct handover immediately, right away.  But that’s gradually, in a transition system, a transition process which is really elaborate, we will be in the position to give the Afghans the responsibility, as they have it in Kabul.  In Kabul, they are in charge of security today; not us.  And they’re doing it very well.  So we have to do the same thing in other -- in further areas. 

                And I hope that -- if we’re talking about the French contingents over there, we will -- I hope that the year 2000 (sic – 2011) will enable us to control the consequences of the pacifying process of the Sarobi district in which we have lost numerous troops -- like 10 troops in the summer of 2010, in one single operation. 

                There’s one thing I would like to draw your attention to, and I was telling Bob Gates previous -- earlier today.  There cannot be a European speech or a position or the whole community, international community, to -- which would we -- consist in announcing our pulling out, because that would be the best way to encourage the Taliban.  But to find this idea of a programmed pull-out, a further strength to hold on, we have to do it with the spirit of responsibility that consists in, indeed, being in a position to think that to -- the progress being what it is now in a certain number of areas, we will be able to hand over in 2011, certainly not in a single-sided pull-out. 

                We would only like -- as you said during the lunch, to draw the carpet in Afghanistan. 

                SEC. GATES:  Your turn to choose.   

                MIN. MORIN:  (Laughs.) 

                SEC. GATES:  You want to call on somebody? 

                MIN. MORIN:  Yes. 

                Q     It’s a French journalist. 

                STAFF:  French journalist. 

                STAFF:  You ask in French?

                (Cross talk.) 

                Q     Okay.  First, Mr. Minister, the -- as you know, there was tremendous tension and controversy with the threat of the burning of Qurans recently here, and there were demonstrations and reactions in Afghanistan to that.  And now --  

                MIN. MORIN:  (In French.) 

                (Cross talk.) 

                Q     I’m sorry.  I’ll start again.

                (Cross talk.) 

                Q     Given the tensions that were created by the threat of the burning of the Quran in Florida recently and now the French parliament has voted to ban the wearing of the burqa in France, are you concerned about the safety of French and NATO troops in Afghanistan as a result and further inflaming tensions around the Islamic world? 

                And then, Mr. Secretary, with the parliamentary elections coming up Saturday in Afghanistan, how satisfied are you that the disastrous result that was -- that marked the last election will be repeated or not and whether the risk of fraud has been contained?  And how will you -- what will you be looking for to define that election as a success? 

                MIN. MORIN:  Regarding the level of threat and risk on the troops, on ISAF troops and the French contingent which is deployed, the risk and threat are permanent. 

                And the level of threat and the risks in which they operate is -- very honestly, I don’t think that things will be changed drastically, because they’re constantly under permanent risk.  Every time they launch operations, when you’re at the maximum, whatever the lack of reality of such and such speech or words, you cannot go higher. 

                Let me tell -- grab this a bit to say that on the law on burqa in France, we had no reaction from no Arab capital city telling us that -- showing any hostility concerning that.  So I don’t think that this provocation, if you’ll allow me to get into -- to step into the American -- on the American scene on this -- the provocation on what the pastor said in Florida -- I don’t think this will bring our troops to experience higher risk because they’re in the higher -- they’re in the high risk on a day-to-day basis, anyway. 

                SEC. GATES:  With respect to the elections, first of all, there has been a lot of preparation.  The ballots have been distributed to the voting stations. 

                The Afghans have -- based on the briefings that I’ve received, the Afghans have a capable and competent security plan for the elections.  We will provide support as needed, obviously. 

                I think that the -- you know, I think it’s important to remember that despite the problems of the election last fall, there were an actually a significantly larger number of voting stations open to the public than in the first election in 2004.  And there are a few hundred -- as based on what I’ve read, a few hundred fewer for this election.  So there’s still a lot of polling stations open.  I think that there is a capable security plan. 

                You have a lot of these parliamentary seats that have as many as 10 candidates running.  That means nine people are going to be unhappy after the election.  So we’ll just have to wait and see.  I think that there is a good adjudication process that has been put in place.  So I hope that we will see a credible election in which improprieties are at a minimum.  

                SEC. GATES:  Anne. 

                Oh, I’m sorry.  It’s your turn. 

                STAFF:  (Off mike.) -- going to only have time for one last question because Minister Morin has to leave.  Let’s take one from the French press, and then we have to leave.  I apologize. 

                (Cross talk.) 

                Q     Mr. Minister, I can hardly hear. Concerning Iran, I would like to know if you consider -- both of you consider the sanctions -- the policy sanctions (inaudible) -- is satisfactory, and if you have mentioned a way to make these sanctions even more unbearable, difficult for Iran. 

                And if you have talked about other plans, then sanctions only vis-a-vis this country. 

                SEC. GATES:  We did talk about it.  And I think that there -- that certainly our view is that the sanctions -- first of all, the U.N. Security Council resolution provided a legal platform for individual countries to then take even more severe actions against the Iranian regime.  We have seen them do that in the time since the resolution was passed. 

                And I think our discussion today was really about the fact that the sanctions have ended up being more effective and more severe than perhaps we might have expected before the U.N. resolution was passed. And I must say I also took the opportunity to thank the minister for France’s strong leadership both in the U.N. and in the EU in terms of trying to get more countries to adopt more severe sanctions. 

                MIN. MORIN:  Yes, indeed, we -- the -- our analysis is that these sanctions that were adopted, beyond the resolutions by the -- of the United Nations -- made by a certain number of countries of like -- or like European Union, Korea, Japan and other countries have committed themselves to stronger and heavier sanctions. 

                All this bears fruits, and you will see that today it’s -- debate is starting to exist within the leading Iranian political group. Both in -- when I met the members of Congress this morning and during my encounter with my counterpart during lunch, both -- all of us are convinced of one thing.  We have to display absolute determination, a total will that will not fail.  And we will show -- we should show absolutely no weakness in our resolutions. 

                The Iranians had months and months to change their behavior, which was the -- it was the case for the policy of extended hand by President Obama.  They didn’t grab that extended hand.  So these economic sanctions paved the way as much as possible so that it would bring Iran to be more -- feel more responsible. 

                So I’m really convinced, and this is also what France is convinced about, is that on this topic nobody should display any kind of weakness. 

                SEC. GATES:  Good.  Thank you.

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