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Press Conference with Secretary Gates from Brussels, Belgium

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
June 09, 2011

            SEC. GATES:  Good afternoon.  As you know, this is my final NATO ministerial -- and I really do mean that this time.  I have always placed particular importance on these sessions because the transatlantic security relationship -- and the key role this alliance has played in protecting this continent -- has been the central interest of my professional life, beginning 45 years ago this summer.  Tomorrow, I will have the opportunity in a speech here in Brussels to reflect on the state of that security relationship and to offer some thoughts on its future course.

            The session that just ended focused on NATO’s most important mission -- our effort underway in Afghanistan.  Having arrived in Brussels directly from my 12th and last visit to Afghanistan as Secretary of Defense, I shared my view that we are making substantial military progress on the ground.  I also reiterated my belief that these gains could be threatened if we do not proceed with the transition to Afghan security lead in a deliberate, organized, and coordinated manner.  Even as the United States begins to draw down next month, I assured my fellow ministers that there will be no rush to the exits on our part -- and we expect the same from our allies.

            Another focus of this ministerial was the effort underway in Libya.  We affirmed the recent agreement to extend the NATO mission for another 90 days, as NATO strikes are becoming more and more effective at degrading the Qadhafi regime’s military capability.  Although we will keep up this operations tempo for as long as necessary, I did call for several alliance members to contribute military capabilities so that the burdens are more evenly shared and thus more easily sustained over time.  We also discussed potential supporting roles for NATO in post-conflict Libya, although no one envisions that NATO will be in the lead.

            Let me turn to the sessions focused on NATO’s relationship with Russia.  I was pleased that the NATO-Russia Council Defense Ministers met after a three-year hiatus, reflecting the commitment to strategic partnership at Lisbon announced by our heads of state and government.  One of the key issues in the NATO-Russia relationship is missile defense, and in a separate bilateral meeting with Russian Minister of Defense Serdyukov, we reviewed the active efforts of our defense teams to lay the practical groundwork for cooperation on missile defense in Europe.  While I had hoped we would be ready to move ahead on this subject in the NATO-Russia Council, it is clear that we will need more time. The Department of Defense remains committed to working with the Russian Ministry of Defense in support of our Presidents’ instructions at Deauville, and it was encouraging to hear the strong consensus support at the NATO-Russia Council for practical cooperation on missile defense directed against threats from outside Europe, such as Iran, and not against each other.

            The existence of this consensus, and the practical cooperation with Russia on a range of defense issues, is a testament to how far this alliance has come since I entered government.  NATO is far from the static defense alliance that used to be massed on the Fulda Gap.  And even though operations in Afghanistan and Libya have exposed some challenges and shortcomings in the alliance, which I will discuss in greater depth tomorrow, I also believe there is a growing recognition that other allies need to take on more of the burden and acquire greater military capabilities.

            As I conclude this final ministerial, I am deeply heartened by the progress made last night on one of my key priorities here in Brussels -- NATO reform.  I started talking about overhauling the NATO Command Structure and headquarters bureaucracy three years ago, and have been pushing these reforms ever since. Under the leadership of the Secretary General Rasmussen, and with the support of my fellow ministers, we have laid the groundwork for the most fundamental structural changes the alliance has seen in decades.  Although there is still hard work ahead to implement these changes, the tough political decisions have been made.  But when they are finally realized -- hopefully sooner rather than later -- we will have modernized and streamlined NATO to address 21st century challenges.

            Finally, I told my colleagues that it has been an honor and a privilege to work so closely with them and the Secretary General.  I concluded by saying “I leave confident that this nearly 65 year old alliance will endure and prosper -- the oldest, most powerful and most collaborative joint endeavor of democratic peoples and governments in all of human history.”

            Thank you.

            Bob.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, Bob Burns of Associated Press.  I wanted to ask you about -- in Afghanistan, about the connection between the U.S. troop drawdown plan and the prospects for getting the Taliban leadership into serious reconciliation talks.

            Is a drawdown at this stage, this year, consistent with efforts to improve chances for reconciliation?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that the key in terms of potential for reconciliation is not merely in the numbers of the troops; it is in the progress that we have made.  And we have made a great deal of progress in the last 18 months in terms of driving the Taliban out of their homeland and their strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand.  We've made a great deal of progress in improving the capabilities of the NATO -- of the Afghan national security forces, particularly the army, both in numbers and in quality.

            So one of the fundamental objectives of the president's strategy, which I've been working to execute since December of 2009, was that the components were to deny the Taliban control of populated areas and to degrade their capability to the point where the Afghan national security forces could protect their own country against the Taliban and against other insurgents.

            We've made a lot of headway in both of those.  So I think that the decisions in terms of troop numbers and so on, as the secretary-general said and as the president has said consistently, in terms of pace and numbers will be dependent on the conditions on the ground.  By the same token, we have to realize that there has been an improvement in the situation on the ground.  The key is, what kind of pressure do the Taliban feel under?  I am -- I have always believed that only when they are under significant pressure and begin to contemplate that they can't win, do they then -- are they then motivated to enter into serious reconciliation talks.  I see no changes likely in the next six months or so that are going to relieve the pressure on the Taliban.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, Viola Gienger from Bloomberg News.  You mentioned a NATO-Russia Council defense ministers meeting today in your meeting with Russian Defense Minister Serdyukov.  You said that the U.S. is still committed to finding a way of cooperating on missile defense with Russia.  Do you feel that the Russians are as committed as the United States?

            SEC. GATES:  I think that the Russians have questions about -- particularly the longer-term nature of the -- of the missile defense capability.  I do think they're serious.  I have -- from the very first meetings I had in Russia with President -- then President Putin in 2007 through my meetings with President Medvedev earlier this year and my meetings with Minister Serdyukov, I think that they have responded with interest in our suggestions in terms of how information sharing might work, how we might to work together on this.  I still think there are those in Russia who are skeptical of our motives.  And so I think that we just need to keep working at this.

            I think that the proposals for the data centers that were first made by the Russians some months ago and that we've since elaborated and that I conveyed back to them in more concrete terms when I was in Moscow -- I think there's genuine interest in that.  And I think there is genuine interest in the joint analysis of the missile threat that we've -- that we've agreed to do. 

            So I think we just have to take this a step at a step -- a step at a time.  I think that the Russians have a long history of hostility and wariness about missile defense, and so I just think we have to keep working at it with them.

            Yes?

            Q:  (Inaudible).  My question is:  How would you estimate the readiness of Afghanistani national security forces?

            SEC. GATES:  I think the way General Petraeus phrased it this morning is that it's obviously a mixed picture, but a very positive trajectory.  The reality is, you know, night raids have been in the news a lot, particularly in Afghanistan.  And the reality is there are now some 11,000 Afghan special operations forces, and about a quarter of the night raids are carried out by the Afghans alone.  And the remaining 75 percent are carried out in partnership with coalition forces.  So they have some very high quality forces, they clearly still need partnering and mentoring, but they are making a great deal of headway.

            One of the statistics just over the last year that surprised me -- we've gone from, in terms of qualifying marksmanship, from about 35 percent of the graduates of basic training getting passing marks on marksmanship to over 95 percent.  So there's been some real change in the quality of the people that are coming out of the training. 

            And we're doing a lot of specialized training.  As General Petraeus made clear, we now have a variety of schools for NCOs, for junior officers, for specialties such as logistics and so on.  And I think right now there's something like 30-some-thousand Afghans in school -- in training.  So I think we've made a lot of progress with the Afghan security forces over the last year to 18 months and I see that trajectory continuing.

            Q:  Yes.  (Inaudible).  Two part question on reform.  Could you give a sense then for the scale of impact on financial firms of the reform, in your view?  We've seen 10s or 100s of millions of euros or more.  And what guarantee is there that certain European allies won't use this as a good excuse to continue cutting their defense budget, since NATO won't use much money because it is much more efficient under this reform?  Thank you.

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I think -- first of all, I'm not in the position to be able to forecast the dollar or the euro savings through the reforms.  But just as an example, we're looking at a reduction of about 25 to 30 percent of the personnel, so that's pretty substantial.  The key going forward on the reform of the defense agencies to go from 14 to three is not to squeeze all the people from 14 agencies into three agencies.  It's to figure out how you can do this more efficiently and more cost effectively.  And I would say that several of the allies -- the French, the British, among others -- are really focused on this, and have been with us in terms of reform.

            You've put your finger on a worry that I have.  Frankly, that people will want to pocket whatever savings there is.  I think one of the challenges that the alliance faces is in fact in terms of military capabilities.  And with -- and I'll talk about this at greater length tomorrow in my speech.  But the key, then, is how can we do more together, through pooled efforts in the alliance, for countries whose defense budgets are under great pressure. 

            And I think a great example of that kind of pooled effort is the strategic air left -- airlift capability, where a number of nations in essence went together and bought three C-17s that are stationed in Hungary. We need to do more of that in the alliance.  The alliance ground surveillance system is another case of shared capability, where the costs are shared among a number of countries.  So I think it's important that these savings be translated into capabilities, and not just pocketed.

            Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  (Inaudible) -- Voice of America.

            My question is within the last month or so, we've seen U.S. relations with our two biggest allies in the war on terror, Afghanistan and Pakistan, sort of suffer setbacks.  I mean, between President Karzai's statements on civilian casualties as well as the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, I'm wondering how you foresee that affecting the fight against terror in the region, and also as you leave your position, how you would rate the relationship the United States has.  Is it better or is it at a lower point than your tenure?  Thank you.

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, first of all, with respect to Afghanistan, I have made the case often over the years that we don't listen carefully enough to President Karzai, whether it's private security contractors or civilian casualties or parallel development structures that have no connection to the Afghan government.  If we had listened better earlier on the private security contractors, I don't think there ever would have been a crisis.  We would have developed a transition plan and worked through it.

            President Karzai -- the whole time I've been Secretary of Defense -- has worried about civilian casualties and the need for the coalition to have a far higher standard in terms of protecting civilians than the Taliban do, who actually now and have for some time actually target civilians.

            So this is -- this is not a new concern.  I had dinner with President Karzai earlier this week.  It was a very cordial conversation; we had a private meeting.  I think he is completely on board with the campaign strategy.  I think he has a good relationship with General Petraeus.  He knows Ryan Crocker, our new ambassador, should the Senate confirm him.  He knows Ryan from earlier in this decade.  He knows John Allen -- General Allen.  So I think -- I think that we will continue to be able to work productively together. 

            The Pakistani relationship has been complicated for a long time.  The Pakistanis, in essence, believe that we have betrayed them on at least four different occasions:  most recently in 1989 and then again in the early '90s, with the Pressler amendment when we cut off all relations with the Afghan -- with the Pakistani military.  Persuading them that this time we really mean it, that we really are going to stay engaged, that we really are not going to abandon them to whatever might happen in Afghanistan, and that their interests will be taken into account, has to be a work in progress, and we have to just manage our way through it. 

            The Pakistanis refer to a trust deficit, and I think that's absolutely right.  And what I will say this administration has really worked hard at is in terms of trying to reduce that deficit or eliminate it altogether.  I can't think of any time in my career when senior officials with the government have spent more time engaged with Pakistani leaders, and we'll just have to keep working our way through it.  The truth is we both need each other.

            Q:  Mr. Gates?  (Inaudible) -- from German television ZDF.  Does the death of Osama bin Laden has changed the situation for the Americans in Afghanistan, and you pushed at least 30,000 troops that were sent around -- (inaudible) -- in Bratislava, the defense minister meeting five months ago, and do you think it's now the appropriate moment to -- well, to get them back to the United States?  Is that possible -- let's say toward the end of the year?  And there were reports in the American news that there was at least --

            SEC. GATES:  You're testing my memory of being able to remember all these questions.  (Laughter.)  (Inaudible.)

            Q:  Last remark, if you allow -- that there was a waste of money in Afghanistan; how do you evaluate this?

            SEC. GATES:  That's a no-brainer.  Of course there's been a waste of money in Afghanistan.  You tell -- you show me a war where there hasn't been a waste of money. 

            Now, I personally think that the -- that the report was primarily focused on development projects, and I think that the leadership of AID and the State Department pushed back on that yesterday and the fact that a number of the recommendations have already been taken in this administration to correct some of those problems.  But you know, we have three different oversight bodies just under ISAF in terms of monitoring contracts.  We wouldn't have those if we didn't know we had a problem in effectively administering contracts, and so I end -- I came -- one of the things that I -- that I benefit from -- I'm digressing here a bit, but this is a useful opportunity -- one of the things that I do every time I visit our troops is to sit down and have lunch or a meal with junior officers and junior enlisted.

            In my meeting with junior officers, with captains, one of them talked about the desire to bring electricity to one of the forward operating bases, and a contractor's bid was $240,000 to do that.  They went out and jerry-rigged something for a thousand dollars.

            So what I suggested to General Rodriguez, when we were in the helicopter together, was, I -- one of these oversight bodies at ISAF needs to establish a hotline that is made known to every American officer and NCO throughout Afghanistan, because they see this stuff up close, better and faster than almost anybody, and if they think the government or the military is getting ripped off, then for them to have a number of one of these investigative groups to call to give them a tip -- so they told me they were going to go ahead, and that's basically a no-cost way to get information to those who are supervising these -- to those who would investigate contractors who aren't behaving themselves.

            In terms of Osama bin Laden, I think in terms of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, our commanders tell me they have not seen any difference.  But that doesn't mean there won't be.  And my message, when I was in Afghanistan, is that perhaps the most significant impact of bin Laden's death in terms of Afghanistan is that he had a close personal relationship with Mullah Omar of the Taliban.  And if I were Taliban, I would say:  What did al-Qaida ever do for me except get me kicked out of Afghanistan?

            And so the question is whether breaking that strong link between al-Qaida and the Taliban, which was a personal link, creates the opportunity potentially for a greater likelihood of reconciliation, because obviously one of the red lines for the coalition and for the Afghan government was a complete disavowal by the Taliban of any connection or support of the -- of al-Qaida.

            So I think that in terms of the political prospects, the potential of the killing of bin Laden to be a game changer is there. 

            In terms of the situation on the ground, the commanders tell me they haven't seen anything yet.  I think it's too early to tell.  It's only been about five or six weeks at this point, five and a half weeks since he was killed.  But I think there could be an impact, and -- but it's going to take several months to see.

            STAFF:  (Off mic.)

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, Jonathan Marcus from the BBC.  I'm sure you'll probably have more to say on this tomorrow, but a brief answer, please.  Only nine out of the 28 NATO members are involved in the current operation in Libya.  How corrosive do you think -- is it to the alliance's future that increasingly military operations seem to be conducted by a coalition of the willing within the broader alliance?

            SEC. GATES:  You're right; I will speak to that tomorrow.  (Laughter.)

            Q:  Ian Traynor from the Guardian.  Mr. Gates, on a similar point, would you say that -- do you think that the length -- the extension of this fight, campaign in Libya is sustainable at the same level and tempo without the additional assets that you've been requesting here yesterday and today?

            SEC. GATES:  I think that those who are bearing the brunt of the -- of the strike burden are increasingly pressed.  And I'll speak to that tomorrow a little bit as well in terms of manifestation of a lack of investment in defense over many years.

            But I think they will be able to sustain this.  I think there will be additional help.  I can tell you that the United States is committed to this.  We are providing, I think I read this morning, something on the order of 75 to 85 percent of the tanker capacity.  We are providing a very great deal of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.  And I can tell you we're in this thing with our allies to the finish, and I think they'll be able to sustain it.

            But the question is just how much more painful it becomes if other countries that have the capabilities, that have the capacity don't step up.  To the degree that specific countries were named, it was because they're the big countries that have actual military capacity.

            Thank you all very much.