Gates Reflects on Highlights, Challenges of First Year in Office
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 20, 2007 One year into the job, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today he’s pleased by the turnaround in Iraq and particularly proud of his role in speeding up the timetable for getting mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to deployed troops and setting into motion major changes in how the military treats its wounded troops.
Gates looked back today over a whirlwind year at the helm of the Defense Department, reflecting on high and low points, progress made and challenges he hopes to tackle in the year ahead as he serves out his term.
“I feel good about the past year,” Gates said during a joint interview with American Forces Press Service and the Pentagon Channel in his Pentagon dining room. “I think we’ve made some real progress in the war on terror,” both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When he testified at his Senate confirmation hearing in late 2006, Gates vowed to keep the war in Iraq his top priority. Exactly one year after paying his first visit to Baghdad just two days after his swearing-in, he cited a laundry list of positive developments and said he’s proud to have played a part “in putting Iraq in a better place than it was a year ago.”
“I would say we have made good progress in Iraq this year, but I would also describe it as fragile,” he said.
The new U.S. strategy in Iraq that rolled out less than a month after Gates took office is paying off in reduced violence and U.S. casualties. At the same time, Iraqi army and police forces increasingly are moving into the lead in security operations. This is laying groundwork for progress in other realms, although Gates is quick to acknowledge it hasn’t been across the board or necessarily as expected.
“There has been a degree of political and economic development from the ground up in Iraq that frankly we did not anticipate, but (that) is creating pressures at the national level to get on with some of the reconciliation measures that are necessary,” he said.
“As there has been greater security at the local and provincial level, there has been a reconciliation, there has been good political development,” he said. Gates cited growth of the “tribal awakening” movement in which Sunni and Shiite sheiks are reaching out to each other and to the Iraqi government and coalition.
Less than two weeks after returning from his sixth visit to Iraq since taking office, Gates conceded he’s “disappointed” in the pace of legislative progress at Iraq’s national level.
But he noted today that Iraqis already are doing some of the things this legislation would accomplish, but simply haven’t yet set it down in law. He pointed to the way oil revenues are being distributed throughout the country -- at percentages called for in the yet-unpassed hydrocarbon law. And while the government hasn’t yet passed a deBaathification law, Gates noted that deBaathification is, in fact, taking place.
“We are hoping they will move on these key pieces of legislation,” he said. “They are not going to solve the problems in Iraq, but I think they will symbolize to the Iraqis that their national leadership has come together and is prepared to work together to make these things happen.”
Gates also reported “a good year in Afghanistan against the Taliban,” noting that Taliban no longer control territory anywhere in the country. “Our security efforts in Afghanistan have gone very well,” he said, but he conceded he has concerns that, as in Iraq, progress in other areas isn’t moving along in Afghanistan as quickly or smoothly as hoped.
“I am concerned that the civil side of the effort -- the economic reconstruction, building institutions, getting rid of corruption, going after the narcotics problem – … these are challenges where we have not had a lot of success, and where a lot more effort needs to be put in,” he said.
Accomplishing that will require a continued coalition effort, said Gates, who has repeatedly throughout his first year as defense secretary called on NATO to live up to its commitments in Afghanistan.
Gates acknowledged that sustaining the mission is a harder sell in Europe and NATO than in the United States. “One of the reasons why our mission in Afghanistan has continued to enjoy broad bipartisan support from Congress and among the American people is that Americans remember it was out of Afghanistan that we were attacked on Sept. 11th,” he said.
As operations continue in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates said, he’s optimistic about measures being taken under his leadership to better protect and increase the capabilities of troops carrying them out.
He said he’s proud of the speed in which mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles are reaching the theater. Gates began championing the program this summer after reading about MRAPs in a U.S. News and World Report article that described the protection they provide from roadside bombs and other explosives.
After Gates’ call to action, the Defense Department began jumping through hoops to get the V-hulled vehicles to the theater as quickly as possible -- from fast-tracking the acquisition process to airlifting models as they rolled off the assembly line. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters yesterday that the Defense Department expects to top its year-end goal of delivering 1,500 MRAPs to the theater. Ultimately, the department plans to buy more than 15,000 MRAPs.
Gates cited other new initiatives under way to increase warfighters’ capabilities, including more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support. “So I think there have been a number of specific, as well as broader areas where we have made some headway,” he said.
One long-term measure that will have significant impact is the decision to expand both Army and Marine Corps end strengths. This expansion will help ease strain on the force and “let the troops know that help is on the way,” he said. “It is not right around the corner, but it’s coming.”
Gates said he’s also focused on other long-term efforts to improve the department, including the transformation that began under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Gates said he and Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England have identified about 20 areas they want to continue moving forward on or institutionalize so efforts continue after the two men’s terms at the department end.
Another source of pride for Gates -- one that evolved from one of his biggest disappointments since taking office -- has been his role in reshaping the military medical system to make it more responsive to wounded troops and their families.
Gates said he remembered what it felt like to pick up the Washington Post and read about problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. “I was shocked at what I read in the newspaper, not only of conditions in which some of our wounded warriors were living, but the bureaucratic challenges that they were facing as outpatients,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody has ever had a single complaint about the medical care at Walter Reed; it’s been about the living conditions, about the bureaucracy, about the way the outpatients have been treated,” he said.
As disturbing as he found the news, Gates said, he was equally disturbed that some people wanted to downplay the allegations or sweep them under the carpet altogether rather than getting to the bottom of them. “So my immediate unhappiness was that I didn’t feel that some people were taking the problem seriously,” he said.
Gates jumped into high gear, declaring that after fighting the war itself, “fixing the problems associated with care for our wounded must be our highest priority.”
He conceded today that the Defense Department and the entire military medical system “really hadn’t adjusted to the reality of a long war and had not allocated the resources necessary.”
Despite sweeping changes over the past 10 months, “the problem is not fixed,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.”
To this day, Gates calls his trips to military hospitals to visit wounded troops -- visits he admitted he initially was concerned about because he didn’t know how they’d effect him -- a source of inspiration. “One of the most memorable things I will take away from this job is my visits to the hospitals and our wounded warriors and seeing the families and their spirit and their courage,” he said. “Every visit is uplifting to me just because of the kind of people they are.”
As he travels around the world – visiting 50 countries so far with more already being slated for the new year -- Gates said a high point has been the time he gets to spend with the country’s men and women in uniform. “They are just awesome,” he said.
Gates said he particularly enjoys sitting down with them to solicit their views. “Usually I start the meetings by saying this may be the only time in your entire career you get a chance to give advice to the secretary of defense directly, so let me have it,” Gates said. “And one of the things I marvel at that I think is unique in the American armed forces is that nobody from the E-1 on up has any difficulty telling the secretary of defense exactly what he or she thinks.”
After a year in office, Gates said, there’s no question of American support for the country’s armed forces. He said he knows the troops, particularly those deployed, read news accounts about political debates in Washington.
“But I will tell you, there is unanimity in this city in one thing and in one thing only,” he said, “and that is the love and support of our men and women in uniform.”