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Testimony


Opening Statement to the House Armed Services Committee

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, 2118 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Mr. Chairman, Representative Hunter, members of the committee:
Thank you for inviting us to give you an update on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would also like to express at the outset gratitude to the Congress for recently passing legislation to enhance the benefits of the GI Bill. The Department is very pleased with the outcome, and I can tell you that our men and women in uniform are deeply appreciative. Of course, this is just one example of the many ways in which you have supported our troops over the past years. On behalf of all of them, I thank you.
Last week, General Petraeus made his recommendations on the way forward in Iraq.  Separate recommendations were submitted by the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the commander of Central Command, the service chiefs, and the Chairman.  Although each viewed the challenges from a different perspective, weighing different factors, all once again arrived at similar recommendations.  
We have already withdrawn the five Army brigade combat teams, two Marine battalions, and the Marine expeditionary unit that were sent to Iraq as part of the surge. The President announced yesterday that approximately 8,000 U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by February without being replaced. 
The withdrawal of approximately 3,400 non-combat forces – including aviation personnel, explosive ordnance teams, combat and construction engineers, military police, and logistics support teams – all begin this month, will continue through this fall and winter, and will be completed in January.  In addition, a Marine battalion stationed in Anbar will return in November, and another Army BCT will return by early February. The bottom line point is that the draw-downs associated with the President’s announcements, do not wait until January or February, but in fact begin a few days.
This continuing drawdown is possible because of the success in reducing violence and building Iraqi security capacity. Even with fewer U.S. troops in Iraq, the positive trends of the last year have held – and in some cases steadily continued in the right direction. Our casualties have been greatly reduced –even though one is still too many, and overall violence is down 80 percent. The recent turnover of Anbar province to Iraqi provincial control – the 11th of 18 provinces to be turned over – highlights how much the situation has improved.
My submitted testimony has more details on some of the other positive indicators – as well as serious challenges that remain. In short, Iraqi security forces have made great strides; political progress has been incremental but significant; and other nations of the region are increasingly engaged with Iraq. That said, there are still problems, such as the prospect of violence in the lead-up to elections; worrisome reports about sectarian efforts to slow the assimilation of the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi Security Forces; Iranian influence; the very real threat that Al Qaeda continues to pose; and the possibility that Jaish al-Mahdi could return.
Before moving on to Afghanistan, I would like to make a few general comments and put the successes of the past year and a half into some context.
The President has called our reduction in troop numbers a “return on success.” I of course agree, but I would expand further. The changes on the ground and in our posture are reflective of a fundamental change in the nature of the conflict. In past testimony, I have cautioned that, no matter what you think about the origins of the war in Iraq, we must get the endgame there right. I believe we have now entered that endgame – and our decisions today and in the months ahead will be critical to regional stability and our national security interests for years to come. 
When I entered office, the main concern was to halt and reverse the spiraling violence in order to prevent a strategic calamity for the United States and allow the Iraqis to make progress on the political, economic, and security fronts. Although we all have criticisms of the Iraqi government, there can be no doubt that the situation is much different – and far better – than it was in early 2007. The situation, however, remains fragile.
Disagreements in our country still exist over the speed of the drawdowns and whether we should adhere to hard-and-fast timelines or more flexible time horizons. 
I worry that the great progress our troops and the Iraqis have made has the potential to over-ride a measure of caution born of uncertainty. Our military commanders do not yet believe our gains are necessarily enduring – and they believe that there are still many challenges and the potential for reversals in the future. The continuing but carefully modulated reductions the President has ordered represent, I believe, not only the right direction but also the right course of action – especially considering planned and unplanned redeployments by some of our coalition partners. The planned reductions are an acceptable risk today, but also provide for unforeseen circumstances in the future. The reductions also preserve a broad range of options for the next commander in chief, who will make his own assessment after taking office in January.
As we proceed deeper into the endgame, I would urge our nation’s leaders to implement strategies that, while steadily reducing our presence in Iraq, are cautious and flexible and take into account the advice of our senior commanders and military leaders. I would also urge our leaders to keep in mind that we should expect to be involved in Iraq for years to come, although in changing and increasingly limited ways.
Let me shift to Afghanistan. There we are working with the Afghans and coalition partners to counter a classic extremist insurgency fueled by ideology, poppy, poverty, crime, and corruption.
My submitted statement details some positive developments, such as the increased commitment by our international partners on both the military and non-military fronts and the announcement yesterday to double the size of the Afghan army, which has demonstrated its effectiveness on the battlefield. The statement also outlines in more detail some of the logistical challenges we still face and are working to improve, such as ISAF shortfalls and coordination problems between military forces and civilian elements, particularly the PRTs.
Persistent and increasing violence resulting from an organized insurgency is, of course, our greatest concern. The President has decided to send more troops to Afghanistan in response to resurgent extremism and violence reflecting greater ambition, sophistication, and coordination. 
We did not get to this point overnight, so some historical context is useful. The mission in Afghanistan has evolved over the years since 2002– in both positive and negative ways.  Reported insurgent activities and attacks began increasing steadily, in the spring of 2006.  This has been the result of increased insurgent activity, insurgent safe havens in Pakistan, and reduced military pressure on that side of the border, as well as more international and Afghan troops on the battlefield – troops that are increasingly in contact with the enemy.
In response to increased violence and insurgent activity in 2006, in January of 2007 we extended the deployment of an Army brigade and added another brigade. This last spring, the United States deployed 3,500 Marines. In all, the number of American troops in the country increased from less than 21,000 two years ago to nearly 31,000 today. 
At the NATO Summit in Bucharest in April, ISAF Allies and Partners restated their commitment to Afghanistan. France added 700 troops in Eastern Afghanistan. This fall, Germany will seek to increase its troop ceiling from 3,500 to 4,500. Poland is also increasing its forces by [400] troops. 
The number of Coalition troops – including NATO troops – has increased from about 20,000 to about 31,000. And it appears that this trend will continue – as other allies, such as the United Kingdom, add more troops.  
In Bucharest, in April, the President pledged the United States would send more troops to Afghanistan in 2009. Accordingly, we will increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by deploying a Marine battalion this November and in January 2009 an Army brigade combat team – both units that had been slated for Iraq.
As in Iraq, however, additional forces alone will not solve the problem. Security is just one aspect of the campaign, alongside development and governance. We must maintain momentum, keep the international community engaged, and develop the capacity of the Afghan government. The entirety of the NATO alliance, the EU, NGOs, and other groups – our full military and civilian capabilities – must be on the same page and working toward the same goal with the Afghan government. I am still not satisfied with the level of coordination and collaboration among the numerous partners and many moving parts associated with civil reconstruction and development and building the capacity of the Afghan government. 
We do face committed enemies, which brings me finally to the challenge of the tribal areas of Pakistan. As in Iraq, until the insurgency is deprived of safe-havens, insecurity and violence will persist. We are working with Pakistan in a number of areas, and I do believe that Islamabad appreciates the magnitude of the threat from the tribal areas – particularly considering the uptick in suicide bombings directed at Pakistani targets. During this time of political turmoil in Pakistan, it is especially crucial that we maintain a strong and positive relationship with the government – since any deterioration would be a setback for both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The War on Terror started in this region. It must end there.
Let me close by again thanking all members of the committee – and the Congress as a whole – for their support of our men and women in uniform. I have noted on a number of occasions how positive the public response has been to those who have volunteered to serve. Our nation’s leaders across the political spectrum have led the way in honoring our servicemen and women – not just by providing the funds they need for their mission, but also by publicly declaring their support and admiration of our troops. I thank you for your sentiment. And I thank you for your leadership during these challenging times.
Mr. Chairman, before I close, I would like to take a moment, also to take this opportunity to share with the committee my decision to terminate the current Air Force tanker solicitation. As you know, the Department has been attempting over the past seven years to find a proper way forward on replacing the current fleet of U.S. Air Force KC-135 tankers. Most recently, we have been engaged in discussions with the competing companies on changes to the draft RFP that would address the findings and recommendations of the GAO’s review of the Boeing protest. It has now become clear that the solicitation and award process cannot be accomplished by January. Thus I believe that rather than hand the next administration an incomplete and possibly contested process, we should cleanly defer this procurement to the next team. Over the past seven years, this process has become enormously complex and emotional. In no small part due to mistakes and missteps on the part of the Defense Department. It is my judgment that in the time remaining to us, we cannot complete a competition that would be viewed as fair and competitive in this highly charged environment. I believe that the resulting cooling-off period will allow the next administration to review objectively the military requirements and craft a new acquisition strategy for the KC-X as it sees fit. I am assured that the current KC-135 fleet can be adequately maintained to satisfy Air Force missions for the near future. Sufficient funds will be recommended in the FY09 and the follow-on budgets to maintain the KC-135 at high mission capable rates.  In addition, the Department will soon recommend to the Congress the disposition of the pending FY09 funding for the tanker program and plans to continue funding the KC-X program in the FY10-15 budget presently under review. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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