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Media Availability with Secretary Gates from COP Kowall, Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
March 08, 2011

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, happily, we didn't get rained out today and instead had a -- had a perfect day. 

                 It's been very encouraging.  And I think what you've seen here in terms of this Afghan Local Police and this integration of U.S. forces, the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Army, the local Afghan police, empowered by the tribal elders, village elders, and a lot of pride in what's taking place and a sense on their part that this is spreading to the villages around them.  So clearly this is -- this is encouraging on the ground.  It's been encouraging watching it from Washington, but it's encouraging watching it from here as well.

                 As you've heard me say before, I think the closer you are to this fight, the better it looks.  The security piece is good.  One of the encouraging things I heard at our last stop was that the district governor had been given civilian help by the provincial government.  He's been given a deputy.  He's been given a couple of additional people.  So even in that small area, they're beginning to see Afghan civilian leadership be expanded.  The governor -- district governor is a -- apparently is a very good man, but was all by himself until fairly recently.  But now he has some help that's been sent in.

                 So I do feel like the pieces are coming together, but I would -- I would continue to say what we have said all along.  The gains are fragile and reversible.  The fight this spring and this summer is going to be very tough.  We expect the Taliban to try and take back much of what they've lost.  And that will really in many respects be the acid test of how effective the progress that we've made is going to be, is if we can sustain the gains that we have made and expand them further, I think it will be a powerful message.

                 Q:  What's your judgment, having seen what you've seen over the past two days, about whether in fact the gains will hold up under the increased pressure you expect in the spring?

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, I have to -- you know, I'm -- I guess I would say -- I would use the phrase I use all the time, which is I'm cautiously optimistic. 

                 And I'm cautiously optimistic, A, because of the gains that have been made against tough odds.  You heard about the losses of the 3/5 [3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment], but one of the statistics that I heard from the 3/5 was that 90 percent of their losses, which include 29 killed and 175 wounded in that battalion, were in the first 90 days of their deployment.  They have really -- it's been very different since then.  And so I'm cautiously optimistic because of the caliber of people that we have and the Afghan partnering program and the numbers of Afghans getting into the fight. 

                 I'm also cautiously optimistic because the Afghans are getting into the fight, because the numbers are beginning to matter, and in different respects, the police, the army, the local police and so on.  So we'll see.  But I think this spring and summer in many respects will be an acid test.

                 Q:  Can you -- can you -- how can you logically explain the drawdowns you talked about last night coming in July with what you're saying is a really tough fight this spring and summer?

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I think that -- I think that the announcement that we would begin drawing down in July of 2011 has contributed to a sense of urgency on the part of the Afghans in terms of the recruitment of significant numbers of Afghans to serve both in the army and the police and in the -- and in the local police.  The surge in recruitment for the Afghan army and police really has been since that announcement.

                 Now, the other side of it is, I -- what I was told by the 3/5 is, the Afghans were worried about that announcement.  But with the announcement of the 2014 team, those concerns, they told me, have receded.  And they do believe that we are going to be around for the longer haul.  And so I think that beginning a gradual process that is based on conditions on the ground that probably won't be here in the south or the southwest to start, probably is doable.

                 Q:  (Through interpreter) Adbul Kareem Shakri (ph):  He's a national -- Afghan National Television representative.

                 SEC. GATES:  Okay.

                 Q:  (Through interpreter) What was the purpose of your visit to Kandahar and to Afghanistan?

                 SEC. GATES:  I wanted to come down here to see the progress being made by the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, the Afghan Local Police, with their international partners.  And I have been very encouraged by what I have seen.

                 Q:  (Off mic.)

                 STAFF:  Let's take one last U.S. question.

                 Q:  (Through interpreter.)  How important is it to create more ALP police officers in this program?

                 SEC. GATES:  Having more Afghans involved in protecting Afghan security is absolutely essential.  We are here to enable the Afghans to take charge of their own security.  This is important for Afghan security and for Afghan sovereignty.  It is important for Afghan security.

                 STAFF:  Last question with -- (inaudible).

                 Q:  On the local police initiative, are you reassured or what would you say to these concerns that are sometimes raised about this project, that somehow it could fuel militias or, you know, somehow create civil strife or civil violence?

                 SEC. GATES:  Well, one of the things that I was impressed with today is the process -- the vetting process.  But also you noticed the presence of the representative from the Ministry of the Interior there and from the Afghan National Police.  So I think having this connection and having the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Local Police linked together also with the army and tied in as well with the locals and the district government I think should allay concerns about militias.

                 STAFF:  Okay, guys.  Thank you very much.

                 Q:  Thank you.

                 Q:  Thanks.

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